August had always wanted to run her own bakery, ever since she was young. Life just always seemed to get in the way.
First she foolishly followed her mother's advice, to prioritise finding a man and starting a family. It was just what they did back then, it seemed so important at the time, but as much as she loved her husband and daughters, she sometimes wished she made a different choice.
Because after that, everything started to get in the way. Children for a start, they took up so much time and attention, and by the time they could look after themselves, they were draining the bank. One needed glasses, another needed braces, another broke her leg and their insurance were bending over backwards to avoid covering the hospital bills. Then there was college tuition.
Once the kids were finally all moved out, with families of their own, her husband had a stroke and needed around the clock care, and that was the next ten years of her life, the bakery had long since slipped from her mind.
Until he died, that is.
It was at the wake that one of her older granddaughters sat down and asked her about her dream.
"I remember one time you made these awesome little pumpkin shaped cookies with like, actual pumpkin in them, you said if you had your own bakery you would sell them every halloween. You thought parents would love them because it's secretly getting kids to eat a vegetable."
"You were so upset when you figured that out." August laughed, her granddaughter took hold of her hand tight.
"Why don't you do it? You're gonna be bored out of your mind if you stay home alone all day, every day." she said.
"I'm too old." August argued.
"Bullshit, you haven't even hit your seventies, and you're still out there mowing your own lawn without breaking a sweat, you're ripped grandma."
The girl made a compelling argument.
"But how would I afford it? You need to rent out the space and I just don't have that kind of money, not after all Eugene's hospital bills."
"No but this is the brilliant thing, I know a place." her eyes sparkled with excitement. "My friend's brother just moved out to this little town in Illinois, he said that all the houses are cheap, and the rent is super low."
"Sounds too good to be true," August narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "What's the catch?"
"Apparently it's got something to do with the town not showing up on GPS? They can't get enough people moving in, and for some reason there's a weird bug on a lot of sites that deletes posts if they mention the place. The homes for sale didn't have the address listed, you have to PM them for it. Jessy thinks it's some big government conspiracy." she rolled her eyes. "Her brother doesn't help, he keeps talking about how weird the place is, he's got tons of crazy stories, says the entire town is haunted as shit. Pretty sure he's just pulling her leg though."
"It would be a bit of a drive from here." said August, but she couldn't deny the thought had intrigued her.
"Yeah like, it's probably a week long road trip at MOST, come on grandma. We could still come visit, it'll give me an excuse to come see the freaky ghost town!"
August had almost been prepared to accept that her dream was long past possible, but when her granddaughter started pulling up ads for commercial building rentals in Illinois, she was amazed by the prices. They were affordable, they were very very affordable.
It barely took her a month to sell the house, pack up her things and give the rest of her belongings away to her daughters. They told her she was being impulsive, that it was all too soon, but a fire had lit itself in her belly and she wasn't going to be stopped. She finally had her chance, for the first time in her life she wasn't going to let it slip by, Eugene would have wanted her to take it.
She had to use a paper map to find the place, which worked just fine for her since she barely even know how to work her phone one. She traded cars with her grandson, needing the much larger van to fit all the things she needed to take with her. Then she was off, out to start her new life and business in some odd little Illinois town.
She'd already sorted things out with the real estate over the phone, she was renting a two storey commercial/residential building, she would be living upstairs and working out of the ground floor.
With the money leftover from selling her house, and the phenomenally cheap bond and rent, she had been able to up her budget to set the place up just the way she wanted it, even after paying off the hospital bills.
She had only been moved in for a couple of days when she started to see the weird shit. It turned out that Jessy's brother hadn't been playing the fool.
She stood on her small balcony, coffee in hand, as all of her moving boxes floated out through her windows and began to circle a strange chubby blue man who was floating in the sky.
August had to go back inside and sit down for a moment. Then she had to pick up all the crockery that had been unceremoniously dumped out of the boxes onto the floor as they made their hasty exit. Thank god her youngest daughter was so good at wrapping glassware, only a few cups came out chipped.
She was very ready and willing to accept that she had suffered some sort of grief induced hallucination, maybe her family had been right, maybe this was a little too fast.
The next time it happened, she knew she wasn't just seeing things. The entire meat section of the supermarket had definitely just come alive, she knew it was real because everyone else in the store were running from the flying produce. Though the strangest part, she thought, was just how nonchalant people were about it.
They were all running from the mess sure, but sort of in the way that one would run for a bus. There was no hysteria or screaming or leaping over shelves for safety, everyone just sort of... quickly shuffled away, like this was more of an inconvenience than an actual threat.
Much like the man with the boxes, she didn't stick around to find out what would happen. She assumed the old lady swinging the sausage links around like nunchucks would either go away on her own, or someone would come move her along. The man with the boxes had disappeared so obviously there was some kind of damage control happening.
The government coverup conspiracies were beginning to make an awful lot more sense now. They were especially fuelled by the frequent sightings of men in white suits with sunglasses and earpieces, wandering around town in big white official looking, unmarked vans.
August couldn't decide how she felt about all this. She felt like she should feel a whole lot more freaked out by the fact that meat monsters and floating men were being covered up by the government, but somehow it was rather hard to panic about it when absolutely nobody else seemed all that much bothered. She was almost even afraid of asking someone what in the hell was happening, because everyone just already seemed to know, she almost felt foolish for being the only one out of the loop.
Everything went quiet for a week or two, with no unusual occurrences. Well, not ones she could see at least. There were strange noises permeating the air every other night, the occasional flash of green light from somewhere across town. There were a lot of animal sounds, growling and howling, heavy wings flapping and the occasional thud of something heavy hitting something sturdy.
She began to get used to the noises after her fifth or sixth sleepless night, but there was still the occasional loud bang, clang or crash that woke her up.
One afternoon she got a terrible fright as something knocked over the trashcans in the alley beside her building. She had been checking over the freshly painted sign above the front door when she heard something whizz behind her, followed by the clattering of metal.
Against her better judgement, she ran over to the mouth of the alley, peering cautiously around the corner.
There was a boy sitting on top of a pile of overturned bins and garbage bags, he groaned slightly and sat up, brushing a few potato peelings off his shoulder.
"Oh my goodness, are you okay?" August asked, rushing over to him.
One of those creatures must have thrown him, he was lucky to have hit the garbage, instead of the hard concrete.
He looked up at her and grimmaced. He was dressed rather strange, but she paid it little mind, one of her granddaughters had been into the same sort of modern goth trend with all the black and the neon and whathaveyou.
"Yeah I'll be fine, can't say the same for my nose." his face wrinkled in disgust. "Ugh, garbage smell is so hard to get out of your hair."
"I wouldn't know, I don't make a habit of swimming in the trash." August joked, she grabbed the boy's arm and attempted to haul him up.
He was an awful lot lighter than he looked, as she pulled him rather easily to his feet. He was also dreadfully cold.
Then suddenly he was pushing her aside and a bright green light flashed as something screeched behind her. By the time she got her bearings the entrance to the alley was clear and the boy was capping a silver soup thermos.
"Sorry, that Jaguar snuck up on me, are you okay?"
She nodded numbly, staring at the device in his hand.
"You can catch monsters in that?" she asked, it looked an awful lot like a regular old soup thermos, but upon closer inspection she could see a few technical doodads on its surface.
"Sure can!" he threw it up into a spin before catching it again in one hand. "I can fit up to about twenty-five in here at once."
She wondered if it could fit that much soup as well.
"Thank you for catching that awful thing." August clasped her hands around one of his. "They've been keeping me up at night you know, oh where are my manners? Would you like to come inside? I probably have a few wet wipes somewhere, and I just made some cookies."
He'd looked ready to excuse himself away until she mentioned the cookies.
She led him through the freshly painted doors and into the warmth of the shop, nearly ready to open. She had been test running the kitchen all day and everything was working just fine.
She invited the boy to sit at a small table across from the glass display cabinet, currently empty, as she fetched a large tray of warm chocolate chip cookies, and a packet of antiseptic wipes.
"Here, have as many as you like! I only made them to test run the ovens, they'll be no good by the time the shop opens."
"Oh Ancients they smell amazing, thank you!" he very quickly removed his soiled gloves, wiping his hands and face down with the sanitary wipes before taking a cookie and biting into it.
August sat down across from him, biting into a cookie of her own, they were crispy on the edges and soft on the inside, exactly how her grandkids like them. She tried not to look at the jagged scars shooting across the boy's left hand, zig zagging up under his sleeve like bolts of lightning.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?"
He grunted an affirmation around a mouthful of cookie.
"You see I just moved here a few weeks ago and, well, the real estate forgot to mention the issue of the um-" she gestured vaguely. "The floating, glowing... things."
He swallowed the last bite of his cookie and sat back, an amused smile tugging at his lips.
"Yeah you wouldn't be the first, technically there's no laws about disclosing if an entire town is haunted. We've had a few people move in one week and then back out the next, it takes a certain kind of person to deal with this sort of crap."
"Does everyone carry one of those thermoses around? Should I be carrying one?"
"I mean, you could buy a Spectre Deflector or a scanner if you want to." he scratched his face in thought. "I can give you the contact info for the Fentons, they make all this stuff, but for the most part the ghosts tend to leave you alone if you just get out of their way. There are plenty of hunters around to handle things, you got the Fentons, the Red Huntress, the Guys in White, me-"
"Oh, those men in the white suits, are they government?" August asked.
"Yeah, they're the uh, Government Interception Unit for Unnaturals. They're pretty useless, I think they're here for surveillance more than anything, they hardly ever actually fight. They're the ones that shut down any mentions of Amity Park online, they can't hide the ghosts in the sky but they can wipe any digital record of them off the face of the internet."
"Oh lord there really is a conspiracy, my granddaughter is going to love this." She would probably also want to visit as soon as humanly possible, August wasn't so sure she wanted to bring her family into such a strange and dangerous place.
"Yeah but, just so you know, the Guys in White will probably be keeping an eye on you for a while, nothing too invasive." he bit into another cookie. "They'll just want to make sure you aren't trying to spread word about the town to any news outlets. If you're only talking to family they probably won't care, unless your family start making a fuss. That's how you get an agent at your door making threats."
"Oh, I'll keep that in mind, thank you." August looked pensive for a moment. "If you don't mind me asking, what is a young man like you doing out here fighting monsters? Surely you can let the professionals handle it?"
He laughed, covering his mouth in embarrassment as a few crumbs flew out onto the table.
"Sorry, it's just, I'm kind of the only one who doesn't want to destroy the ghosts. I just send them back home, so I try to nab them all before anyone else gets to them." he chewed his cookie in contemplation. "I mean it's not like they asked to die, they just don't know how to cope with it properly."
"They have a home?" August felt like that shouldn't be surprising, everything had to come from somewhere.
"Yeah, there's this inter-dimensional portal they keep getting out of, it's a whole thing."
She stared down at the table, thinking hard as the boy devoured another cookie, she wondered when he'd last eaten, he looked starving.
"These are really good by the way, when do you open?"
"In about three days, I just need to stock up on kitchen supplies and the place will be ready to go." She couldn't help but wring her hands in excitement. "This is my first business, I've wanted to own a bakery since I was a little girl."
"Better late then never right?" the boy grinned. "I'll put the word out for ya, a bit of free advertising. You're in a good spot, the school bus stops right outside here, you might get some regulars."
"Oh! Maybe I'll offer a student discount!" her eyes lit up. "And I'll make some breakfast pastries, growing teenagers need a good breakfast. I was thinking of doing some toasted sandwiches as well."
The boy listened eagerly as she murmured ideas to herself, munching happily on another cookie.
She didn't realise the afternoon had been slipping by until the last rays of sun dropped below the buildings across the street and left the two of them in shadow.
That was when she noticed something unusual about the boy.
As soon as the sunlight dropped away, a soft white glow seemed to permeate his skin. His eyes shone bright and even the scar running up his hand began to pulse an eerie green.
She acted like she hadn't noticed anything unusual, and excused herself with the tray of cookies.
"I'll pop them in a bag and you can take them home, or you could share them with your friends, I'd hate to see them go to waste."
"Thanks! I'll make sure everyone knows about this place once it opens, you gave me free cookies so it's only fair I return the favour." He beamed as she passed the bag back over, his icy cold hands brushing hers.
"Excuse me dear but... you are one of them aren't you?" she could feel her heart fluttering anxiously as she asked.
His face dropped into a more sombre smile and he nodded.
"Yeah, yeah I am. Oh, I didn't introduce myself did I?" he took her hand and gave it a swift shake. "My name's Phantom, it was nice to meet you!"
"August." she squeezed his hand softly in return. "Likewise, you're welcome to come back any time."
He grinned, pulling his gloves back on and giving her a small cheeky salute, and before her very eyes he leapt into the air, his legs disappearing into into a long wispy tail as he swiftly shot straight through the glass of the closed door.
That was... certainly something.
She hadn't known exactly what to expect when she first move to Amity Park, but it definitely hadn't been having a ghost as her first, unofficial customer. She thought about the scars on his hand, and idly wondered what may have caused them, and if it had been what killed him.
She thought about asking the next time she saw him, but decided that would probably be quite rude.
It seemed he had kept his word though, and as it turned out, his word was worth its weight in gold.
The very day she opened, her store was thrumming with business, first were the kids, popping in as they waited for the bus to school, then there was a steady stream as people passed by. She had caught people's attention before she had even opened, a few stickybeaks peering through the windows as the place was refurbishing. There was a lot of foot-traffic on this street, a lot of people in need of a convenient pick me up on the way to work, and a treat while on their lunch break. There was a large office building just up the road and she was seeing quite a few people in suits.
If things kept going this well, she might consider hiring a barista. She could offer a cake and coffee combo.
The student discount had been a good idea, some of them would buy a second treat as soon as they realised they were half price. They must have spread the word since by the afternoon, she found a much larger group coming off the bus and bustling into her store.
One large blonde boy pointed at the chocolate chip cookies in the display cabinet.
"Kwan! Hey! Those are the ones Phantom gave us! They were so good, I'll take a whole box!" he and his friend scrounged through their pockets for change as she packed up a baker's dozen for them.
Within the next half hour they had sold out completely, she had to promise the remaining students that she'd have a much larger batch cooked for tomorrow.
There were a lot of other things she hadn't considered when she dreamed up the business. She'd gotten a few questions about gluten, and dairy free options, one girl asked if she had anything vegan.
She felt awful sending them away empty handed, but she promised to look into adding more dietary options to her cabinet.
By the end of the day she was completely exhausted, her feet hurt and her back ached, but the till was full to bursting, and her stock was completely sold out. She hadn't prepared an awful lot, she was expecting things to be slow on her first day, she would be more prepared tomorrow.
The rest of the week turned out to be just as busy, if not busier. She had to prep more and more each day to meet the demand, her chocolate chips were selling like mad, the kids had started calling them Phantom Cookies. Apparently he had handed out the rest of the ones she'd given him to as many kids as he could find.
She was starting to realise that Phantom was something of a celebrity in town, especially among the youth, his influence alone was making an ordinary old chocolate chip cookie her best selling item by a mile.
She was very glad to see him when he came back to visit. He knocked on the door, floating upside down with a big grin on his face. She knew he could go right through the glass, but he politely waited for her to come and invite him in.
"You've got something to answer for young man." August chastised, "You didn't tell me you were a celebrity."
"Oh, uh, oops?" he shrugged, lounging casually in the air beside her. "In my defence, it's not really an easy thing to mention without sounding super full of yourself."
"I suppose that's true." August laughed lightly. "I really must thank you, my chocolate chips are selling faster than I can put them on the shelves. The kids are calling them Phantom Cookies now."
The ghost blushed green, looking bashful.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"It's been fantastic for business!" said August, excitedly. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind if I put the name on the display? Now I understand if you aren't comfortable with that but-"
"No! I mean yes! I mean, no I don't mind at all!" his face lit up, literally. His cheeks were almost glowing. "I've never had a cookie named after me before! Usually when people put my logo on stuff they don't ask first."
"That sounds illegal." August frowned.
"Ghost don't have legal rights." Phantom pointed out. "Besides I don't really mind it's just... nice to be asked for once."
He'd finally set himself down on the ground before her, hands shoved into his pockets.
"I'm really glad your business is going okay, you must be exhausted though."
August sighed and took a seat, rubbing her sore back.
"I think I need a more comfortable pair of shoes, and maybe a masseuse." she joked. "I might be fit for my age but I'm not sure I could do this six days a week if the store's going to be this busy."
"A victim of your own success huh?" Danny bit his lip as he frowned in thought. "Have you thought about hiring someone to help you out a bit?"
August considered the suggestion, the thought had crossed her mind.
"Well it could be helpful to have someone stay on the till, I could replenish stock faster if I have more time back in the kitchen, and I won't have to close the store when I take a break."
"Sounds like a plan." said Phantom, dropping into the seat across from her.
"I have another idea," August perked up with excitement. "If it's okay by you."
"Yeah I'm all ears." said Phantom. "Lay it on me."
Over the next hour or so, August had laid out a new batch of cookies, they were the same chocolate chips that she had always made, but she'd added powdered charcoal to the mix to turn them black.
Phantom proved himself to be a delightful kitchen hand, with a surprising knack for mixing.
"My mom used to make snickerdoodles," he told her. "She'd let me lick the spoon if I creamed the butter and sugar for her, I had to do it for like, five minutes straight."
"I used to say the same thing to my kids." August shook her head, smiling, and then continued in a conspiratorial whisper. "Can I tell you a secret? It's all a ruse, I would have let them lick the spoon even if they didn't help."
He looked at her with wide eyes, full of betrayal.
"You moms are devious." he said in a low, accusatory tone. "But uh, don't tell anyone I told you about my mom, okay? I usually don't talk about stuff like that, you're just... you seem nice."
She considered asking him if he still saw his mother, if she knew that he was still here, but he'd just admitted to trusting her with personal information he normally kept close to the chest, she didn't want to break that trust by prying.
Once the cookies were in the oven, Phantom hovered in front of it, watching them, the tip of his tail flicked impatiently.
"A watched cookie never bakes." she teased.
He zoomed excitedly around her when the timer went off and she finally pulled them from the oven.
"We have to wait for them to cool before we can add the icing, otherwise it'll just run everywhere." she told him, when he enthusiastically held up the piping back.
He pouted for a moment and then smiled.
"I can cool them down." he hovered over the tray and gently blew on the cookies.
August could feel the icy cold air on her hands and she pulled them back away from the counter, rubbing them together to bring the warmth back to her fingers.
Phantom dramatically gestured toward the cookies.
"Ta-dah! Can we ice them now?"
She lightly touched one with the back of her hand. It had gone from piping hot to just cool.
"Well aren't you full of tricks."
He beamed at her.
She piped Phantom's logo on in white icing. It took her a few tries to get it right, but Phantom had been more than happy to dispose of the failures. As well as his own failures when he gave the icing a try. Eventually he stopped doing it properly and started drawing silly faces on them.
He held one up beside his head and mimicked it, scrunching his eyebrows together and sticking his tongue out. August couldn't help but laugh, before grabbing the cookie and jamming it in his mouth, then she laughed even harder.
He stuck around and chattered aimlessly with her as she prepped for tomorrow. Telling her about all the best lunch spots in town, and the grocery stores with the best prices.
"The Nasty Burger is as good as any big name fast food joint, just don't eat the chicken nuggets, or the chicken burgers. Actually just don't touch the chicken in general, I know someone who works there and she says they're so processed that she's not sure there's even any actual chicken in them."
She was just about done for the night, and halfway through cleanup when she saw a plume of mist rise from the boy's mouth.
"Oh crud, I gotta go." he leapt up from the counter he'd been leaning on and hovered in the air. "Thanks for the cookies! Again! I'll come back another time when I get the chance."
"Now you wait just a minute," she grabbed his arm before he could speed off, "You're going to take off without giving grandma August a hug?"
She held her arms out expectantly.
He dropped back to the floor and shuffled his feet nervously, before huffing out a sigh and wrapping her in a very quick, but very firm hug, then he disappeared up through the ceiling.
You could tell a lot about a person by a hug, August had always believed that.
The one he gave her was brief but he held her so tightly, like he didn't want to let go. He probably grew up with a very affectionate family, she imagined him hugging his own mother after they pulled a tray of snickerdoodles from the oven together. She was certain it had been a long time since he'd had a moment like that. His hug had felt starved, desperate even, for that comfort and warmth.
He had an awful lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and many young kids who looked up to him. It must have been nice to take a break, he seemed to really enjoy baking with her. She was glad to give him that.
The new and improved Phantom Cookies were a smashing success, even parents had started coming in to buy them for their little kids.
It was close to closing time when a black girl with thick curly hair walked in, she was alone and looked a little awkward.
"Oh, hello there!" August wiped some flour off her hands and went out to the front counter. "Sorry dear I was just about to close up, but you're more than welcome to stay and have a look. I'm afraid I don't have much left though."
"Oh, thank you, but that's not why I'm here. I uh," she shifted her grip on her shoulder bag. "I was... told by a friend that you might be hiring?"
August looked up in surprise.
"Oh, well this is some awfully good timing, I'd just been considering whether or not to put a sign in the window. Are you experienced on the till dear?"
"Yes." the girl nodded. "Very, and I've also got experience in stock sorting and cleaning, um, here's my resumé."
She pulled out a couple sheets of paper from her bag and passed them over, August considered them for a moment.
"You've worked as a barista?" she asked.
The girl hesitated slightly, but nodded.
"I have, a few times. I know the basics, but it's only Nasty Burger coffee. Nothing fancy."
"Well, that's already better than what I can do." August smiled. "I'm thinking of bringing coffee to my menu but I have no clue how to work those machines. I could certainly use someone with a bit of training and experience. What hours are you free? Are you still in school?"
"Yeah, I am, but I'm free on weekends, and Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. I can come right over, the bus stops just outside. Oh, and if you need me on other days I can try to rework my schedule with my other job."
"Well Miss-" she glanced at the resumé. "Gray, I'd be delighted to have you, even if only a few days a week. Can you start this Saturday?"
The girl's nervousness broke out into a relieved smile.
"Yes! Yes, I can start right away!"
It seemed like Phantom was doing more favours than she could ever repay in cookies. He'd been the only one who knew she was considering a new hire, he must have put the word out. That boy was remarkably well connected with the local teens, she supposed it came with the territory of being a hero.
The best part about paying cheap rent, and making plenty of business, was the disposable income. After selling her house, money had been of little consequence. She had worried that she might burn through it if the store wasn't successful, but she certainly wasn't concerned about that anymore.
Which meant she was perfectly capable of paying Valerie more than enough for her assistance, which the girl was endlessly grateful for. August always made sure to send her home with whatever leftover stock they had, anyone working two jobs while still in school was probably falling on hard times. She knew what it was like, barely getting by, rarely being able to buy even one nice treat for yourself.
August considered hiring a second barista to cover the days Valerie wasn't available, but she was surprised to find the girl had happily dropped all of her afternoon shifts at the Nasty Burger to work with August all week.
"You pay better than they do," Valerie explained. "And... I just really like working here, your customers are way nicer."
August liked having someone to work with, Valerie was a headstrong young woman, she worked hard and was good at figuring things out. She stayed a whole extra hour after closing to make sure that she could work the new espresso machine August had installed. She wanted to make sure it was ready to go for tomorrow, even though August assured her it was okay if it took a few days to get the hang of it. Valerie was determined though, the girl didn't back down from a challenge.
Phantom returned after a couple of weeks, apologising profusely for taking so long.
"Sorry, everything gets a little hairy leading up to Halloween." he explained. "Ghosts activity goes up tenfold."
August forgave him with a box filled with various cake slices.
"Thank you for sending that girl here." she said, as he dug into a piece of cheesecake. "I couldn't ask for a better employee, she works so hard."
He paused, mouth still full of cake.
"You didn't talk to her about me, did you?" he asked.
"Of course not, I can tell you're a man who likes his privacy." she assured him, he looked relieved.
"Oh good, I meant to come and make sure you didn't say anything to her but I got sidetracked."
"Is there some history here I should know about?" August raised an eyebrow.
"It's not... I just..." Phantom floundered for words, cheeks glowing just a little. "She just doesn't like me, this ghost really messed up her life and I couldn't stop it and I wanted to make it up to her. I had to ask someone else to tell her that you were thinking of hiring."
"I see." August crossed her arms, frowning. "That would explain why she hates the Phantom Cookies, I thought she just didn't like chocolate chip."
Amity Park was certainly a strange, chaotic town, and Phantom was right, it did take a certain kind of person to deal with it, but August was happy to find she was certainly that kind of person.
She could handle the occasional ghost smashing through her windows, her insurance covered ghost attacks after all. She could get used to the sounds of fighting at night, she knew Phantom or the Red Huntress would be keeping her safe. She could even deal with the government agents loitering around her business, keeping an eye on her, she wasn't interested in doing anything that might draw their attention further.
She could cope with the strange, the weird, the bizarre, because she had her bakery, she had her dream.
And she had some pumpkin shaped cookies to bake.
I wasn't planning on writing more of this but August is just so fun and Valerie deserves nice things damn it!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Valerie was the perfect employee... most of the time.
She worked harder than August thought a girl her age ever could, she had a fierce determination to do everything right, fulled by a deep seated fear of failure.
It devastated August to see this bright and talented young woman berate herself so harshly when she dropped a pastry on the floor, or miscounted someone's change.
"These things happen," August would reassure her. "For every mistake you make, you have a hundred successes, and I appreciate each and every one."
This constant drive for perfection, and anxiety over failure, were what made her occasional absences quite unusual.
They would happen roughly once a week, she would either be an hour or so late to a shift, or call in sick at the last minute, often sounding out of breath. She would apologise profusely, make endless promises to make up for her lost hours, but August was always forgiving. She could tell the girl wasn't slacking off on purpose, nobody worked harder than Valerie, but she was spending all her afternoons and Saturday mornings with August. She spent evenings and nights at the Nasty Burger, and then she had to go to school in the morning. August often caught her napping over homework while on her lunch breaks, the girl was run ragged, so if she needed a day off every so often August was more than happy to let it slide.
She hadn't thought anything else of it. She hadn't thought there was a reason to.
Until a ghost turned up in her shop.
She had locked the door for the evening, Valerie having already headed home, but as August was tidying the kitchen she heard a woman humming up in the front of the store.
She thought she had locked the door, but perhaps she had forgotten, regardless, she had a customer to serve, even if it was after hours, she didn't let anyone leave empty handed.
"I'll be with you in just a moment!" she called out as she washed her hands.
The humming stopped, and as August approached the front of the store, she could see an eerie glow reflecting off the glass of the display cabinet.
She had seen this ghost before, right when she had first moved to town, terrorising the deli section of the grocery store. She looked barely younger than August herself, with a sweet smile and seemingly gentle disposition, but August knew what the woman was capable of, and that she could turn on a dime.
"Hello dear," the ghost looked up from the display cabinet and smiled warmly. "I couldn't help but notice all the children coming in here today. Are they eating well?"
August took a steadying breath. She wasn't afraid of talking to ghosts, Phantom was one after all, but she had seen what this ghost could do when she was angry. She had good insurance, but she would rather avoid having to close for repairs.
"I make sure none of them leave empty handed." August said proudly. "And students get everything at half price, they burn through it all so fast."
"Oh don't they!" the ghost exclaimed. "Ravenous little things they are, I used to feed them well and good in my day, but you should see what comes out of that cafeteria now."
She sniffed haughtily, her disdain was palpable.
"They've got 'vegan' this and 'low-carb' that, food like that doesn't put any meat on your bones."
August hoped the ghost wouldn't notice the little isolated side cabinet labelled 'gluten-free' that was sitting only just to her left.
"Yes I suppose they are a bit more picky these days," said August. "But I think the most important thing is making sure they're well fed, and if they only eat certain things then I'll just have to make sure I have those things."
The ghost frowned, but didn't argue, she merely tutted to herself.
"It's all so different now, kids used to eat just any old thing you put on their plate, now they'll turn their nose up at perfectly good food."
August was picking up that this ghost was trying to relate with her, likely expecting August to share the same gripes. She understood, to an extent, kids were certainly much easier to feed back in her day, but August truly revelled in making food people enjoyed. Her grandchildren made it hard at times, but she didn't mind the challenge. She would have appreciated the effort if it were made for her as a child.
"Oh yes, kids these days, spoilt rotten." August agreed, feeling her late mother's words rolling greasily off her tongue, she repressed a shiver of distaste and continued. "They ought to eat what's given to them."
She hoped that would satisfy the ghost enough for her to leave, but it seemed to only fuel her.
"Exactly! You know, I've tried my darnedest to whip that school cafeteria into shape but that Phantom boy always has to butt his nose in." she crossed her arms and huffed. "He just needs to mind his own darn business, I ran that cafeteria for thirty years before I died, that menu hadn't changed even a bit in all that time."
"That must have been very hard for you." said August, genuine this time. "To go back and find all your work was gone."
She patted the ghost on the hand, and the woman sniffled.
"It is hard! I put my whole life into feeding those kids right, it's not fair that a lousy little thing like death should keep me away."
August recalled a conversation she'd had with Phantom when they first met, about how some ghosts acted out because they were struggling to cope with their death. She was starting to see what he meant by that.
"Have you thought about compromising with the current staff?" August asked. "I see no reason why you can't work together."
"But that's MY cafeteria!" the ghost spat, "Why should I have to share? They're the ones who shouldn't be there!"
"Oh dear," August held the woman's cold hand a little tighter. "Oh I can see this is upsetting, but surely you can see why the school had to hire new staff, they couldn't have known you would be coming back, and somebody had to feed the children."
"Well... yes I suppose, but I'm back now, so they should all be the ones who have to leave! They're not needed anymore, they're only getting in my way."
"Can I offer some insight?" August asked, she didn't wait for an answer before continuing. "Maybe the new staff have children of their own to feed, maybe they can't find anywhere else to work. They aren't going to want to give up their job if they can't find somewhere else to go. Their families could go hungry."
The ghost seemed to ponder that for a moment.
"I didn't think about that." she said slowly. "But it's still not fair, it's my kitchen, not theirs."
"I know dear, but that's just life, and even death I suppose, not everything is fair and easy." August sighed. "I just think it might be worth looking into other options, maybe you can convince that boy not to keep taking you back to the other world, if you can come to some sort of understanding?"
"I don't want an understanding! I want my kitchen!"
August could hear rattling coming from her own kitchen, oh dear, the ghost was getting just a bit too riled up for her liking.
"Oh, might I ask you a favour?" said August, hoping the abrupt change of subject would cool her off. "I've just made some caramel slices but I'm worried they're not quite sweet enough, could you taste them for me?"
The ghost's growing scowl pulled short into a look of surprise.
"You want my help?" she asked, a small, genuine smile curling up at the corner of her mouth.
"If you wouldn't mind." said August, breathing an internal sigh of relief as the sounds of clattering kitchenware ceased.
"Oh well, I suppose I could offer some wisdom." the ghost looked almost bashful, but certainly eager. "I've made a few slices in my-"
Valerie stepped out from the kitchen doors into the storefront, a slightly bulbous, odd shaped, red gun pointed at the ghost.
"You've got ten seconds to get out of here before I blow your head off!" she shouted.
August hadn't seen her come in, she must have come through the back door, why was she here so late? Perhaps she'd forgotten something, August thought, she probably saw the ghost through the windows and went around the back way to gain the element of surprise.
Phantom had told August that people could buy protective gear from the Fentons, but he'd never mentioned that they were selling guns. She wondered if Valerie had bought it herself, or if her father had, did he know that she was using it?
The ghost turned, pulling her hand from August's, facing the girl fully.
"Hello young lady, you look hungry, would you like some meatloaf?"
The ghost pulled a plate out of seemingly nowhere, a dense loaf sitting heavily upon it.
Valerie grit her teeth.
"You know damn well that I don't." she hissed.
"THEN PERISH!" the ghost screeched, her body swelled in size as her guise dropped into something monstrous, the meatloaf splitting in half to form large projectiles that splattered into the ground where Valerie had been standing a moment before.
The girl leapt out of the way with the grace of an acrobat.
"August! Get behind the counter!" Valerie called out, she did as she was told, dropping hard to her hands and knees.
She didn't want to leave Valerie to face this creature by herself, but she was the only one between the two of them holding a gun, and she looked like she knew how to use it.
August heard shots firing, and the sounds of the ghost screeching, the caramel slices that had been sitting on the countertop in the kitchen suddenly picked themselves up and flew over August's head like fighter jets. She heard Valerie's shoes squeak on the floor tiles as she, presumably, dodged the sweets.
Then another voice joined the fray.
"Oh no you don't! Not THIS bakery!"
The ghost howled in fury, but soon enough August heard the distinctive roar of Phantom's thermos activating, followed by the click of the lid being closed shut.
She raised herself back up to peer over the counter.
Valerie was holding the gun to Phantom's head, the barrel mere inches from his temple, her face was twisted with rage. He looked as though he had barely noticed her.
"August!" he exclaimed, flying over the counter and helping her straighten up. "Are you okay? Did she hurt you?"
"I'm alright dear, I'm alright. Valerie got here before anything bad could happen."
Valerie lowered the gun, but kept it held firmly in her grip.
"You know her?" she asked, disdain dripping from her every word.
"Uh, yeah, duh! She sells the Phantom Cookies!"
"Oh good," August glanced around the store, sighing in relief. "Minimal damage, won't have to close tomorrow."
She clung to Phantom's arm tightly as one of her knees ached, she'd hit the ground a little harder than she realised. He seemed to notice, as he looked at her with concern.
"Are you okay? Can you stand?"
"Get away from her." Valerie pulled the gun back up, holding it firmly at head height. "I'LL help her."
"Valerie dear, it's alright, he won't hurt me." August assured her hyper-vigilant employee. "I'll be fine, I just need to sit down and rest my knee for a moment."
Valerie, with an edge of hesitance, lowered the gun once more, stuffing it into her shoulder bag before grabbing an overturned seat and dragging it behind the counter.
"Get her some water." Valerie barked at Phantom.
He gave a mock salute and swiftly flew over her head into the kitchen.
Valerie examined August's knee, it was already starting to bruise.
"Maybe we should take you to emergency, just to make sure it isn't broken." Valerie suggested, feeling around the area gently. "Does this hurt?"
"It's tender but I don't think anything's broken." August assured her.
"Hold on, I can check." Phantom returned with a glass of water, placing it in August's hand before reaching for her leg.
Valerie grabbed his arm.
"You can go now." she growled. "I can take it from here."
"Oh, I'm sorry, can you turn her leg invisible to get a good look at her bones?" He asked, raising his eyebrows questioningly. "Yeah, didn't think so."
He phased through her grip and touched August's leg, frowning in concentration.
August watched the exchange with interest, she couldn't see what he did to her leg, but she felt it tingle like pins and needles.
"I don't see any fractures." she reported, curtly. "You can stop touching her now."
"Alright, alright." he pulled his hand back, returning her leg to normal. "I'm not poisonous, Val. Chill out."
Phantom had warned August that Valerie didn't like him, and that much was obvious, but the girl hadn't outright shot him, and although she grizzled, she still allowed him to help. Underneath the veneer of loathing, there was a sense of mutual understanding. One that Valerie perhaps resented having.
"Here, this should help the swelling a little." Phantom placed a hand over her bruised knee, his palm was cold, but not unbearably so.
"What were you thinking August?" Valerie chastised. "Why would you talk to it? You should've hidden, or escaped through the back."
"It was a little late for that, by the time I realised she was a ghost she'd already seen me." August hadn't felt especially afraid while talking to the ghost, but now that it was over she found her hands shaking.
"You were talking to her?" Phantom asked in surprise. "What did she say?"
"Who cares what it said?" Valerie glowered at him. "It nearly killed her!"
"Actually she nearly taste tested my caramel slices for me." August chuckled. "I don't think she came here to cause trouble, she just seemed lonely."
"Ghosts only come here to cause trouble." said Valerie, crossing her arms and staring very pointedly at the back of Phantom's head.
Phantom looked up at August and rolled his eyes.
"Is she this cranky at work too?" he asked, his cheeky smile growing as he heard Valerie growl from behind him.
August gave him a light smack to the arm.
"Now there's no need for that." she chastised. "You're upsetting her."
Phantom's smile slipped away and he ducked his head in shame. Valerie smiled smugly.
"You too Valerie." August pointed at the girl. "You've been awfully rude tonight, I know you're better than that."
Valerie looked as though she had been slapped.
"He's a ghost August!" she argued. "He shouldn't even be here."
"I came to help." Phantom snapped. "Unless you'd rather I stood by and just let the bakery get destroyed."
"I didn't mean the bakery." said Valerie, her voice cold. "You shouldn't be here, in our world, in our lives."
"Oh, and I'm sure if you came back as a ghost you wouldn't want to go back home?"
"I wouldn't even come back as a ghost in the first place! I would die and move on like the rest of you should have!"
"WE DON'T GET TO CHOOSE!"
"That's enough!" August snapped, the two kids turned to look at her, stunned. "I don't know what happened between you two but I won't have you talking to each other like that in my bakery."
Both of them stared awkwardly at the floor, shame colouring both their cheeks.
August placed a warm hand over Phantom's cold one, still sitting on her knee, and gestured to Valerie with her other hand. She stepped forward and took it.
"As long as you're here you'll behave yourselves," August chastised them. "I'm very disappointed in you both."
"She started it." Phantom muttered under his breath.
Valerie bristled and opened her mouth to argue, but August cut in.
"It takes two to tango." She said firmly, then continued gently. "You're both such good kids, you should know better."
Neither of them would look at her, Phantom scratched at his neck as Valerie fidgeted with her bag. August gave their hands a gentle squeeze.
"Thank you for helping me, both of you, but I don't want to see you screaming at each other again. Valerie, Phantom has been a good friend to me and he will always be welcome here, I'm going to need you to accept that."
Valerie glowered but nodded her head slowly.
"And Phantom, teasing her is only going to make things worse, and I know you don't want that. If you're going to visit while she's here, you need to behave yourself."
Another slow nod.
"Now then," August sighed, she almost felt like she was back home with her grandkids, they always fought like cats and dogs. "I might need a little help getting upstairs."
"I can take you." Phantom flew around her and settled an arm tightly around her waist. "You're light as a feather to me."
"Thank you dear, oh Valerie," August fiddled with the till on her left, unlocking it and pulling a few notes out. "I hate to be a bother but would you be able to run to the pharmacy for me? I could do with some anti-inflammatories, just to make sure I'm not too sore tomorrow."
"Of course I can, it's not a bother," Valerie took the money, but held onto August's hand for a moment longer, eyes locked onto Phantom. "I'll be back soon."
It shouldn't have sounded like a threat, but her words held too much of a menacing bite to be anything but. Phantom didn't so much as blink, instead he merely smiled.
"I'll take good care of her Val, I promise."
Valerie nodded, gave August's hand a squeeze and turned to leave the bakery.
"So she doesn't like you, but she trusts you. It's quite the odd relationship you two have." said August.
"Yeah..." Phantom mumbled, as he adjusted his grip on her. "Are you ready?"
"Oh no, no you aren't flying me up there are you?" August asked in mild horror. "Oh dear no I don't think I can handle that."
"It'll be fine I'll go slow," as Phantom lifted her from the chair she almost panicked, gripping the boy tightly, but he wasn't going to let her fall. "See? It's not so bad, and we don't have far to go, you can close your eyes if that'll make you feel better."
August was fairly certain that would make it so much worse, so she kept watching as the floor got further away, her stomach flipping over itself in anxiety.
"I got you, I've carried whole busses full of kids without dropping anyone, you're a breeze." said Phantom, his voice light and reassuring. "Okay this part's gonna feel a little tingly."
That pins and needles sensation from before swept over her, but she still couldn't help but flinch as she felt as though they were about to hit the ceiling. They didn't, of course, instead they went right through, her vision darkened for a moment before returning to a very close up view of her floor, she didn't realise how much it needed vacuuming.
He placed August down on the lounge, shuffling her ottoman over and gently resting her leg on it. He grimaced.
"That bruise is getting worse, and it looks like it's swelling, I don't think you should walk on it tomorrow."
"It'll be fine when Valerie comes back with the medication." August waved a hand dismissively. "The bakery won't run itself."
"People can survive without the bakery for a day." Phantom said as he flew over to her kitchen, grabbing the dish cloth hanging from the oven door handle. "You've only got two legs, you should look after them."
He returned with the cloth, conjuring some ice out of midair and wrapping it up to place on her knee.
"Why do you tease her so much?" August asked, grimacing at the cold.
Phantom crossed his arms tightly against his body.
"I dunno," his eyes were downcast, a far cry from his usual jovial attitude. "Just makes everything hurt less I think."
When Phantom told her that Valerie didn't like him, she hadn't expected it to be so loathsome, and it didn't seem to stop at Phantom either, she spoke with such venom about ghosts in general. Her hatred even seemed to trump fear itself, her hands had been steady as a rock holding that pistol, and she moved with such ease and grace. Confident, practiced.
And the gun was red.
August heard a door downstairs slam shut, and Phantom looked over at her with a small smile.
"I better head off, but seriously August, take it easy tomorrow. Okay?"
With that he soared up through the ceiling and out into the night.
Valerie came up not long after, letting herself into the small flat and making her way straight over to August.
"Don't leave the ice on it for more than 20 minutes at a time." Valerie directed as she gently wrapped a bandage around the knee. "And try to keep it elevated."
She left the box of anti-inflammatory pills on the side table along with a large glass of water.
"I'm putting a sign up to say you'll be closed tomorrow." said Valerie.
"Oh for heaven's sake, I'll be fine Valerie, there's no need to-"
"I know you're fine August, but if you walk on this all day tomorrow it definitely won't be fine and then you'll need even more time off to recover. The bakery's doing great, closing for a day or two won't set you back."
"But it'll set you back." August stressed. "I know how much you struggle, you can't afford the time off."
"August," the frustration in Valerie's voice softened slightly. "I'm not going to put money over your health, it's not your job to worry about me. I can pick up another shift at the Nasty Burger for the day, I'll be fine."
"Or," August lit up. "If you're so insistent that I rest, I could pay you to bring this old bird a nice breakfast while you're on your way to school, and then you could pop in and help me with a few chores around the house in the afternoon."
She didn't need to know that 'chores' included watching daytime tv and eating popcorn.
Valerie laughed softly, picking up her bag and giving August a light pat on the arm.
"Thanks August, I'll make sure to bring you something extra nice."
Just as Valerie reached the door to leave, August spoke up.
"Oh and by the way, you don't need to apologise to me for missing shifts every now and then. Ghost hunting is such hard work after all."
Valerie stared at her, frozen in place. August grinned cheekily.
"I'll see you tomorrow, dear."
I mean SOMEONE had to tell these two to pull their heads in and get along!