The nail salon opened to no fanfare. One day the building was dark with a “For Lease” sign in the window. The next day there was a banner announcing “Mimi’s Nails” hanging outside and a small “By appointment only” sign in the window. There was no opening celebration, no flyers or ads went up, and no one ever seemed to go in or come out of the salon.
At first I didn’t think it was odd. There were two other nail salons in the neighborhood so maybe it was taking time to get a client base. My coffee shop was on the opposite corner from Mimi’s. I could see the front of the salon from my counter. When it got slow after the morning rush, I’d watch the salon waiting to see someone go in. I’d occasionally catch a glimpse of a tall, middle-aged woman opening the front door. I could never see her face and I never saw her leave. Mimi’s remained a mystery.
Six months passed. Nothing changed at Mimi’s. As the new school year started, my watching became less frequent but I’d still catch myself glancing across the street every now and then. Nothing ever changed. It was almost time for me to roll out my seasonal menu for fall. Last year I introduced an apple crisp that sold out so quickly I had to triple the recipe for the remainder of the season. I also offered a spiced chai bread and pecan pie bars that made a nice afternoon treat. Of course, my regulars wanted more and they were demanding the one ingredient I didn’t want to deal with...pumpkin. It’s not that I don’t like pumpkin; I love pumpkin pie and pumpkin cookies. The problem is that it’s just become too much. Everything is pumpkin flavored or scented so it’s not special anymore.
I was considering my pumpkin conundrum and half listening to Angela Thorne, president of the Franklin Street Small Business Association, discuss plans for the upcoming Fall Festival when Davis Stephens, owner of many of the buildings along Franklin Street, elbowed me in the ribs.
“Sammy, Angela just asked you a question.” He stage whispered to me.
“What? I’m sorry, Angela. What did you ask?” My cheeks were a fine shade of red and I felt guilty for not listening.
Angela shook her head and repeated the question, “I asked if you would be interested in running the baked goods booth again this year.”
“Sure. Of course. I have some new fall desserts to add to this year.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Sammy. I hope you’ve got something pumpkin planned.” She winked at me and moved the conversation on to other Fall Festival related topics and I drifted back to my own thoughts.
And then I saw her. Sitting in the back of the room behind the two guys who owned the hardware store and Doris Smith who owned the donut shop. It was the woman from Mimi’s. She never came to meetings.
“Davis, do you know who the woman in the back row is?” I whispered.
Davis followed my gaze to Mimi (as I thought of her). “Nope, never seen her before.”
“I think she owns that nail salon, the new one across from my shop. I never see anyone go in or come out. It’s strange. And she never comes to meetings.”
Angela shot me a look and I mouthed my apologies. The meeting wrapped up ten minutes later. I tried to make it to the back of the room to meet Mimi but she was gone before I could get there.
“So weird,” I said to Davis.
“Maybe she’s shy. Maybe she thinks we’re all idiots for spending a perfectly good Thursday night discussing baked goods, booth placement, and whether this year’s logo will scare children.”
“Maybe. Or maybe she’s hiding something.”
“No one has secrets around here. Small towns don’t work that way.” Davis said goodnight and walked towards his car.
I didn’t buy it. I decided to make an appointment and see for myself.
During a morning lull, I went back to my office to make my manicure appointment. The phone rang and rang. No message, no voicemail option. I tried a few more times, hoping someone would pick up. No one ever did. The salon didn’t even come up on yellowpages.com or the town business directory. It was like Mimi’s Salon didn’t exist. I decided I’d have to be bolder. I’d have to go over and visit. I put together a basket of baked good and coffee samples and headed across the street.
The windows were dark. They were covered with a film I hadn’t been able to see from across the street. Whatever it was made it virtually impossible to see inside. I couldn’t see any movement and the front door was locked. I knocked, hoping someone was around. No one answered. I should have just given up and gone back to the coffee shop. But I couldn’t. I had to know what was going on in that salon. There was a back entrance to the building. All of the buildings on Franklin Street have them. I walked around the building and found myself in an alley just like the alley behind my shop. Just a dumpster, nothing out of the ordinary. I tried knocking on the back door. Again, no answer. When I tried the doorknob it opened. I had found a way in.
Cautiously, I took my first step into the salon. It was dark, as dark as it had looked from the outside. It smelled strongly like a nail salon; I recognized the sting of polish remover and the fumes of nail polish. I could make out the shapes of massage chairs and footbaths for pedicures and what looked like rows of tables up front. A door was to my left; I assumed it was an office or storage room. I opened the it and found myself staring down a dark set of stairs. Did this building have a basement? I had already entered without permission so it was too late to go back now. I left the basket on the floor and started down the dark staircase.
About halfway down the stairs a smell hit me. It was a comforting smell, like baking or mulling spices of some kind. I could pick out cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla but there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was earthly and fruity all at the same time and it worked perfectly with the spices. Then it hit me.
Pumpkin. Lots and lots of pumpkin.
The stairs ended just as I figured out the smell. Another door was in front of me. I could see light around the edges and the smell was even stronger. I opened the door.
It took a second for my eyes to readjust to the light. It was a lab or a lab-like room. There were a five or six people in white coats at a table, conferring over something. They hadn’t seen me so I ducked down and crawled closer to where they were. I hid myself under another table two rows behind them and listened.
“I think this one gets the pumpkin pie scent just right. It’ll be perfect for air fresheners and candles. Maybe even for scented soap although it might be too much for soap.” This from a male voice, the person standing closest to me.
“Since when do we care if it’s too much for something?” A woman replied. The group laughed at this little inside joke.
I could make out the figures a bit from under the table. One of the woman was Mimi. She was one of the scientists or whatever they were.
She continued, “We need to ship six more distinct fall scents before the end of the week. Four of them have to feature pumpkin so let’s work on the levels of this a bit more make it more palatable for soap and perfume. Gerald might be right about it’s potency.”
The man, Gerald, seemed pleased with the response. They moved to another table and a second woman started passing out samples in tiny cups.
“These are the new pumpkin flavored potato chips. I think the added cinnamon gives them a little something.” The group seemed to agree.
“We’ve also got a new pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin Pop Tarts, an improved pumpkin spice Oreo, and my personal favorite, pumpkin Goldfish crackers.” The woman passed out samples of each. The group approved of everything.
“You would think people would get tired of pumpkin flavored things but we can’t work fast enough to get the flavor out there.” Gerald spoke to no one in particular.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing or seeing. This was where all the pumpkin flavored things came from? A basement laboratory on Franklin Street hidden beneath a nail salon? It seemed completely ridiculous.
But then again, it made sense. Using an appointment only nail salon as a cover was genius and the odors of nail polish remover and nail polish covered the pumpkin smell. I was close to the lab door before I realized what it was. These guys were geniuses.
They still didn’t know I was there. I could have said something but I decided that it was better to get out of there before I was discovered. I crawled back to the door and moved as quietly as possible back up the stairs. I made it back to the top and closed the door without making any noise. I almost tripped over the basket I’d left. I thought about taking it back across the street with me but then I decided to leave it for them to discover. They would know that I knew what they were up to. I would send them a little message with cookies and coffee.
I walked out the backdoor and back across to my shop. I immediately headed to the kitchen and threw away all of the pumpkin desserts and pumpkin I had. I didn’t want any part of it anymore. The pumpkin madness would stop with me.
A few days later I noticed a “For Lease” sign at Mimi’s. Message received.
Based on the prompt: There is a nail salon near you that never seems to have customers. You discover the real purpose of the business. From 1000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder.