The chalkboard was the first thing Lydia Pepper noticed when she arrived at the café. Something was… off. All of the words were still there, every menu item she’d written the day before was still on the board in clean, white chalk letters. It was the little dancing girl, it was missing. Someone had erased the little dancing girl and only the little dancing girl from the corner of the chalkboard. Strange, she thought. I guess I’ll just have to draw it again.
Chalk dust was the second thing Lydia noticed. There was a light dusting of it everywhere. Down the side of the chalkboard, all over the floor, on the table tops, on top of the counter, it even made its way into the kitchen. It finally stopped at the broom closet. It looked as if someone had run through the café with a loaded eraser, slapping every surface in reach. I guess I’ll have to clean that up too.
Lydia always arrived at The Dancing Girl Café earlier than her employees. She liked to be the one to switch on the lights and warm the ovens. She felt she was waking the café up, bringing it to life. She actually loved the electric hum of the machines as she switched them on. In a way, it reminded her of waking her daughter for school, something she deeply missed.
And then there were the muffins. A secret, family recipe that only Lydia knew how to make. She had to get there before anyone else in order to mix the batter alone. They had been her daughter’s favorite and were the first item Lydia put on the menu when she’d opened the café a few years ago. They were a big hit with the breakfast crowd so she had to be sure to mix a large amount of batter before anyone else arrived. Cleaning up chalk dust was going to set her back but she had no choice. It covered almost every surface in the kitchen.
She set to work, cleaning and mixing. She had just finished adding the last ingredient to the batter and turned on the mixer when Alejandro arrived.
“Morning, boss,” Alejandro, tying on his apron.
“Good morning, Alejandro. Hey, do you know anything about some chalk dust I found all over the café this morning?” Lydia, spooning batter into muffin tins.
“Chalk dust?” joining his boss at the muffin tins.
“Yeah, when I came in this morning there was chalk dust on everything. I didn’t even know what it was at first. I had to clean it all up before I could start on the muffins.” The first muffin tin slid into the oven and the door slammed shut.
“Sorry, I don’t know anything about it. Jenna was the one who closed up last night. She might know.”
Jenna did not know. None of the employees seemed to know anything about the mysterious chalk dust or who had erased the little dancing girl. Lydia drew the little dancing girl back into the corner of the board. She couldn’t understand why someone would erase the little girl but decided it wasn’t worth any more investigation. It had probably been a customer.
Lydia hummed as she unlocked the door to The Dancing Girl Café the next morning. She switched on the light and her purse hit the floor. Everything was covered in chalk dust again but even more so this time. And the little dancing girl had been erased from the corner of the menu board again.
She wasted no time wondering who or what had done this and went straight for her phone. Alejandro was the first to arrive but soon all of Lydia’s employees were there helping her clean before the breakfast crowd arrived. They cleaned the kitchen together first, then everyone was ushered out to give Lydia privacy to make her muffins.
Lydia breathed a sigh of relief when the muffins made it into the oven but soon her thoughts turned back to the chalk dust. She had to find out who was doing this. Now she was sure it was one of her employees. As she drew the little dancing girl back into the corner of the board, she decided she wouldn’t leave at 4pm like she did most days. She would stay until closing to see if she could find out who was doing this.
Closing time came and went. Nothing happened, though Lydia wasn’t sure what she had expected to happen. Maybe just being here has put an end to this stupid prank, she told herself. She went home, more tired than she’d been in a while and hoped that this really was the end of the chalk dust and the missing drawing. As always she kissed the tips of her fingers and lightly pressed them against the door to her daughter’s bedroom as she passed by. And then she wondered what Fletcher was doing and if he was happy with Stacy. And then she was asleep before she could feel sad and alone, which was nice.
The next morning Lydia slid the key into the lock and unconsciously held her breath as she opened the door. She peered into the dark café trying to see if chalk dust had once again invaded. But it was too dark for her to tell. She switched on the light.
“Errrrgghh!” sinking down into the nearest chair. The tables, chairs and counters were almost completely white. And the little dancing girl was gone.
Lydia erased the top part of the menu board and wrote “No muffins today”. It almost hurt her to do it but even after everyone had come in to help clean up the chalk dust they had not had time to bake any before it was time to open.
After the last of the morning crowd drifted out, Lydia flipped the “Open” sign to the “Closed” side and sat the employees down.
“I don’t know what to say. I thought this chalk thing was just a prank and that it would be over by now. And I know all of you say you don’t know who is doing this but this has to end now. I don’t want to fire anyone. You all are like family to me. But if this does not end, someone will lose their job,” trying to sound tougher than she felt. It didn’t last. She slid into a nearby chair and hung her head, a quiet sob shook her tired shoulders.
Alejandro stood and wrapped his arms around her in comfort. One by one, they all stood and put their arms around their boss. She stood awkwardly and leaned into the embrace, the first one she’d had in months.
Closing time came. Lydia said goodnight to her employees, locked up and headed for her car. She drove a few streets over to a place where she could watch the employees leaving for the night. She watched as the last car turned at the end of the block then quietly crept back into the darkened café. One way or another she was going to find out who was behind all of this.
She decided to set up camp in the little vestibule that led to the restrooms. From there she could see the dining area pretty well and remain hidden from view. She would wait all night if she had to.
It was much quieter in the empty café than she had expected. Boredom quickly set in followed by head nodding and before she’d realized what was happening she was waking up to the sound of giggling little girls.
She leaned out of the vestibule enough to get a good view of the front counter where the chalkboard sat propped up by an easel. Moonlight streamed in from the window, illuminating the chalkboard and the little dancing girl, who was freeing her tiny chalk body from the board and climbing down the leg of the easel. Too bewildered to speak or even make a noise, she sat frozen on the floor. But the sound of little girls laughing and singing caused her to turn her gaze toward the counter top. Three more girls with chalk bodies danced in a circle on the counter and called out for the new arrival to join them.
“Sister! Come, sister! Come dance with us!” they sang. The newest little girl climbed up the edge of the counter and the three chalk girls helped her pull herself up over the edge. They held hands and gleefully danced around the counter top leaving chalk dust everywhere as they played.
Lydia slowly pulled herself up to standing and cautiously walked across the café trying to stay out of sight so she wouldn’t scare the girls away. But they saw her coming and the dancing stopped. Lydia stopped in her tracks and held her breath. She hoped they would stay.
“Mother!” one of them shouted joyfully.
“Mother!” the rest shouted together in unison.
“Hello,” Lydia said, walking toward them slowly.
“Mother, it is so wonderful to finally meet you,” the leader said.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” unsure how to respond, “How?”
“How are we here?”
“Yes. How are you here?” Lydia, laughing to herself.
“You drew us and the moonlight made us.”
“We don’t know,” all four girls said in unison, giggling.
“When did this all happen?”
“Yes. When did this happen to you?”
“Four nights ago, the day you brought the chalkboard here,” the leader said.
“That was the day I bought it. I found it at a flea market a few blocks from here,” Lydia, trying to understand, “So whatever is drawn on the chalkboard comes to life?”
“Not words or numbers or shapes, only people or animals,” the leader explained.
“Which one of you was first?” Lydia asked.
“I was,” the leader said.
“Then me,” the one to her right said.
“Then me,” said the one to her left.
“I was born tonight,” the newest arrival said.
“So every night, another girl is… born… and you play in the café all night?”
“There’s nothing else for us to do, Mother,” the first-born said.
“What do you do during the day? I’ve never seen you.”
“Yes. We hide in the broom closet,” number 2 said.
“We’re afraid,” said number 3.
“Not of you, Mother. We could never be afraid of you. Just the others.”
“I understand,” Lydia said, thinking, “Well, you can’t live in the broom closet. And we can’t have the chalkboard making anything else come to life. Give me a minute to think.”
Lydia stared at the chalkboard trying to decide what to do. Should she destroy it? But how could she destroy the thing that had given her these four beautiful little girls? Then she saw it. A spot near the front counter that remained completely in shadow, no moonlight fell there. She quickly picked up the chalkboard and easel and moved them into the shadows.
“Okay, that takes care of that. Now…”
Lydia kissed the tips of her fingers as she passed by the door to her daughter’s room and pressed them against the wood before turning the knob and walking in.
“Mother!” the four girls cried out gleefully.
“Hello, my darlings. How was your day?”
“It was wonderful but we missed you so much!” daughter number 2, Maddie, as she was now called, exclaimed.
“I missed you too, my dears. I missed you too.”