Fondant and Flippant Wishes
The alarm goes off promptly at 6:00 a.m., at which time he sits up, stretches and slips on his house shoes. He always wears his house shoes, because if he doesn’t, he stresses and worries about catching a cold. Every night he makes sure that his deep grey, wooly slippers are positioned precisely two feet from his dresser, right beside the worn metal hook that holds up his faded, scruffy robe.
It takes him exactly thirty-three and a half steps to get downstairs to his kitchenette, where his coffeepot warms up within seven minutes. The soft, comforting click of the motors running, churning his coffee, always makes him relax. His dry, grass-woven chairs creak beneath his weight as he clutches his steaming mug.
Just another morning, he thinks, just another morning.
After dribbling exactly two drops of oil on his bedroom door hinges, Albert walks back downstairs and turns on every lamp in his home. There are precisely twenty, a number with a double meaning to the grey Buzz; not only is it his favorite number, it is also how old he is as of five ‘o’clock that morning.
Today will be an extra-special birthday, Albert thinks pleasantly, slipping his slouchy, melancholy tie around his neck and adjusting it. I will do everything exactly as I always do.
Collecting his dark grey suitcase from its post by the door, Albert places his grey cap on his brow and scoops up his grey umbrella. Having long since developed a sense of pride over his generally depressed appearance, he tries to accessorize with matching articles.
After opening his door and sighing dejectedly, Albert starts up the street with a moan. As he always does, he has managed to miss the commuter’s bus and now has to slouch his way down the sidewalk, purposefully avoiding the horrified stares of pedestrians. By now, nearly thirteen years after he had been painted grey, Albert has an established daily routine that is uncompromised and halted by nothing and no one.
While this daily routine might seem odd or persnickety to most, it plays right into Albert’s paradigm of a perfect day. So far, his morning has been pulled off without a hitch, filling him with deeply-rooted satisfaction; this is not to mention the fact that today, of all days, it must go smoothly. It is his twentieth birthday, and Albert is determined to succeed in his driven world.
Unfortunately for Albert, the world works in mysterious ways. Perhaps, it is some form of pre-ordained fate; set in the stars before the dawn of time. Or maybe some things just can’t be planned, much less understood. Years later, Albert would ask himself exactly what prompted him to swing his head to the left and glance in the window of a local bakery; maybe, he reasoned, it was a way of him already showing exhaustion with his typical routine.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, Albert cocks his head to the left on that blustery spring morning, allowing the thick, sugary scents of cupcakes to permeate his mind. Blinking hard to stop the sudden flow of tears from the stinging wind, he squints in the polished windows of Icing’s Hideaway and stops.
A chocolate Usul is hanging brightly patterned floral wreaths in the window, painstakingly arranging tiny tiers of pastries. As she turns each miniature cake so that the luster dust catches the light, she accidently swipes a smear of pink icing across her cheek. Ducking down behind a massive teal cake with green lollipops jutting from the edges, she gently sets a series of plastic baubles on the top, settling each into the inch-thick buttercream frosting.
Albert, in spite of every finicky bone in his body, freezes and stares into the warm café. As he stands there, his coattails flapping behind him, he observes the extensive walk-in menu; hot croissants and biscuits with sticky jam topping, richly caffeinated coffee and lemon poppy seed scones, nutty muffins and whole wheat toast with slabs of butter strewn over their tops. And, of course, the main attraction to the slightly shabby shop; tchea slices dipped in chocolate, crumbly chocolate cupcakes slathered with globs of buttery icing and sprinkles, petite, gumdrop-coated birthday cake with lettering done in slick vanilla fondant. A hand-painted sign over the door confirms what Albert has subconsciously hoped; it is ‘Open’ and will be until nearly midnight.
It seems to take him an age to decide, but eventually Albert crosses the empty sidewalk and steps inside the doors of the aforementioned establishment. A cheery bell jingles as he opens the door, causing him to flinch and grimace, but the café is very nearly empty. The only other customers are a blue Skeith, pouring over an edition of the Neopian Times in the corner and a disco Kacheek absentmindedly licking the frosting off of the top of a cake the size of Albert’s head.
Sugary, cloying smells assault him the instant he approaches the counter. Evidently, the kitchen where all of these goodies are concocted is directly behind it and the swinging wooden door marked ‘Caution!’ and ‘If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen’.
The mysterious chocolate Usul bobs up from behind the counter, the pink icing still on her cheek, a smile stretched over her pointy face. She is so quick, Albert is certain that the shining silver bell by the cash register has never been touched. “Welcome to Icing’s Hideaway!” She extends a hand over the countertop, swiping it over her apron before she does so. “I’m Icing, the owner of this fine, delicious piece of heaven. I sincerely hope that ye find our wares to yer liking, Mr...?”
Albert, lost in thought, strokes the glass above a series of cheesecakes. Startled, he jumps at her question. “Oh, Meticulous. Albert Meticulous.” Stiffly, as one unaccustomed to doing so, Albert extends a pale hand over the cool glass.
Icing, slightly perturbed but determined to appear unfazed, warmly shakes his hand. “Mr. Meticulous? That sure is a mouthful. Would ye mind if I called yer Albert?”
Albert secretly does mind. First names should only be used if you’ve known someone for three or more years, and have spoken to them every day of those three years. Even then, you still have to ask their permission and it’s only truly polite to call someone by their first name on the third Tuesday of every month.
But what he says is a very flustered, “Of course.”
“Albert, sir, would ye like something to eat on this fine morning?” Icing asks, her accent sharp as she calmly dices a stack of cheese cubes on the countertop. “We have a very fine selection of various fine foods from all over Neopia.”
Albert, while noticing that she has an obvious thing for the word fine, presses his soft, grey nose against the glass cases containing the food. His exhalations mist up the panes, temporarily obscuring the freshly wrought lumps of bread dough and minty cakes. I’ll be late to work, Albert reasons, for the first time in thirteen years. And it’s my birthday. I’ve already deviated from my routine enough...
But some small voice in the back of Albert’s brain whispers, I want a cake on my birthday. So, before he can thoroughly think through his choice, Albert reaches into his pocket and extracts a mound of jingly copper coins. They shine tantalizingly in the half-light, and he rubs them together before he slaps them down on the check-out counter. “What will these buy me?”
Icing, anticipating another order of crescent rolls or scones and a malt, can hardly take in the size of the mound before her. The neopoints sparkle with an ethereal quality that is mesmerizing and hopeful; that amount of money can buy practically anything in Icing’s Hideaway.
Her eyes scan Albert’s face for any trace of a joke, searching for a hidden smile. Discovering, much to her surprise, that Albert is as straightforward as he appears jolts her into action. Eccentric, albeit grey, customers demanded top priority. “A few thousand neopoints can buy the largest cake we offer, Albert, sir.”
Albert and Icing both look over into the window, where the enormous blue and green cake sits, and Albert’s stomach growls with years of waiting. “That sounds perfect,” he says, and Icing swipes the pile of neopoints off the countertop.
After safely pocketing the change, Icing wheels the enormous cake out from the window display, careful of the icing arrangement. The powdered sugar dusting spills regally off the sides, slopping down the front of Icing’s tan apron. Thoroughly christened with the stuff, Icing stands back and settles her hands on her hips.
“There you go, Albert, sir,” she says proudly, “the best I’ve ever made. Double chocolate fudge ripple and vanilla bean mocha truffle with lemon and caramel frosting.”
Albert’s head is spinning. “Sounds... delicious, Ms. Icing.”
She waves away his compliment. “Just Icing, if ye please, Albert, sir.”
The rest of the café turns and stares; a small Gelert duo has wandered in sometime during Icing and Albert’s talk. The cake truly is magnificent; it towers nearly all the way up to the ceiling, icing cascading down its length, sugar-spun flower ropes coiling up and down the tiers.
Albert feels the eternal joy and spark of delight in his chest at the realization that the cake is truly his own, for his birthday present. But, as he comes back to reality, he notices the faces of the other shop patrons. They range from the completely awed to the slightly hopeful of those who wonder if Albert is going to share.
His deep grey, guilty eyes cross into Icing’s, but she only smiles and nods her head forward. It is at her urging that he grips the knife beside the cake, slicing deeply into the fondant and gushy fudge inside, generously ladling out a piece for every Neopian within the place. The stammered thanks and ‘oohs’ of satisfaction make him pleased with his own foresight and kindness.
As his cold metal fork presses into his birthday cake, Albert savors the cacophony of flavors on his tongue. And to think, this morning, I wanted to do the same old thing.
Icing passes him a large glass of chilled kau milk, making Albert actually grin for the first time in thirteen years.
Being grey isn’t quite so bad, after all.
Now, every morning, Albert wakes up and bolts down to Icing’s Hideaway, purchasing a warm cupcake and cup of Shenkuu-spiced tea. Or, sometimes he orders a scone and cup of steaming coffee. Other times, it’s a muffin that our grey Buzz craves.
But, if one thing can be said about Albert Meticulous, it’s that he never chooses the same thing twice.