The Missing Friend

The air was heavy with the sweet dark scents of the shop, weighing down Nicole’s lungs. The jars were stacked to the ceiling all across one wall, silver-handled scoops peeking invitingly from their mouths. The one Nicole was looking at was labeled “Valerian green tea good for headaches. Migraines healing very beneficial!” She fingered the scoop, picking up a little pile of the leaves and letting it fall back down. Maybe, she thought, they should bring some back for Lauren.

A Chinese Herbal Tea shop (涼茶鋪) in Wan Chai , ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tony walked up to her, navigating the narrow aisles of the store with a turn of his shoulders and a dodge around a hanging pan. He said, “Hey, what’re you up to?” She turned to him, letting the scoop clank against the edge of the jar, and watched his eyes catch on the label. His mouth flattened into a thin line. He never liked to go anywhere without Lauren, and Nicole had already caught him fiddling with his phone a couple of times. He was probably sending texts to ask if she was okay every chance he got. That wasn’t particularly helpful, she thought. Lauren was probably curled in her room with the lights off, trying to ignore things that buzzed and lit up every time Tony wanted to remind her how thoughtful he was.

From the end of the left aisle, a round teapot gleamed a bright dark blue. Nicole ducked past Tony and picked it up. It was just big enough to fit comfortably in both palms. She stared at it for a moment, just looking up to see Drew turning from the next aisle over. He flinched, nearly bumping into her, and then he kept walking, calling, “Tony, listen, I’m really hungry. Let’s get out of here already, right?” Nicole’s lips scrunched into a frown and she put the teapot back on the shelf with a thump. She liked the shop, and wanted to stay. Usually Lauren would have shot a comment over to the boys, something that sweetly knocked them off their superiority complex and down to earth with everybody else. They tended to drag people behind them without noticing that they were going too fast, and Lauren had a way of pointing that out. Nicole never knew how to do that, though.

She said, “Wait, guys, I want to buy some tea.” Neither of them turned around, so she repeated herself, louder. Tony swiveled to face her and crossed his arms over his chest, clearly impatient. Nicole found the tea she’d been looking at and hastily scooped some into a bag, sprinkling a bit of it on the linoleum as she did. She paid and hurried after the boys, already outside and walking down the sidewalk. Maybe it would make Lauren feel better.

The next time they went out, then, Lauren would come. Then, Nicole thought hopefully, she wouldn’t get left behind. She tucked the paper bag into her purse and caught up with the boys, tucking herself next to them. Tony nodded at her, and Drew kept talking. The sidewalk was full of jostling elbows and shoulders.

Nicole felt the air loosen around her now that they were out of the shop, away from the shelves and packages that closed them in together. The scent of the tea, flattened under her arm, drifted up to her along with the smells of the city – the pizza place at the corner, the perfume drenching some woman walking by, the ever-present flat smell of the street. The boys were arguing now, in loud voices, about a video game or something like that, she thought. Nicole clutched her purse closer to her, curling her fingers around the top of the bag of tea. She would be back soon enough.

Closed

Lee couldn’t open the box. It was small, the length of his index finger. The little strips of gleaming wood fit tightly together in neat stripes, and his hands looked round and awkward trying to pry open its smooth angles. Rachel was watching him, her pale eyes fixed on his face. They were icy blue in the sunlight, closed and blank. He never knew what she was thinking. The market around them was busy and loud, but his eyes were drawn to her amongst the chaos.

He handed the box to her. It fit into her small hands like it was the right size, as if they were made to go together. She put her fingers delicately on the corners and tugged, and the box slid right open. It was a little drawer with a dried flower inside, but Lee only got a glimpse of the sky-colored petals before she snapped it shut again.

When she handed the box back to him, her fingers brushed his palm. Rachel smiled into his face. He could feel the touch of her skin on his, even though her hand was no longer on his. Stop, he told himself. He was being very silly. This was the sort of thing that happened all the time. He was prone to closing his eyes when she nudged him, as if her movement shone on him like the sun on his face. He would let the warmth sink in, and then shake himself and keep on. And then tell himself he was being silly, probably, because when she touched him it didn’t look like she even noticed. Every graze or poke electrified him, but her face was always empty. Impassive.

There had been one time that he treasured, one moment of uncertainty. Lee folded his fingers around the edges of the box again and pulled, but nothing moved. Rachel was shifting now, impatient, and Lee glanced up at her and remembered that moment. They had been watching a movie, he thought, and he had looked over at her as she sat transfixed. The music onscreen was jumping and rising, and she’d turned to see him, the longing written on his face. For only a second, her expression had come undone and her eyes had opened wide, before she turned back to the screen and closed herself off to him again. For a breath, though, they had been looking clearly at one another.

Lee yanked on the box, frustrated. It wasn’t budging, and his enthusiasm was wavering. He passed the box over to Rachel again, hoping to watch how she opened it. She didn’t, though. She just placed it on the table again, between the Rubik’s cubes and the spinning tops. It looked small and innocuous there in the clutter of toys, but the light gleam of the wood still caught his eye. Rachel’s movement flashed in the corner of his vision, and he turned to follow her as she ducked back into the crowd.

He sighed at his own folly as he wove through the market, keeping his gaze on the blue of her sweater and started after her.

Exit Only

I’m driving with Sarah when my dad calls, and my phone lights up. The road is just shifting into darkness now, my headlights spreading timid light on the pavement of the highway. The brightness of the screen is distracting, a tiny beacon pulling my gaze from the road ahead. Sarah taps the screen before I can stop her, and picks up the phone. I shoot her a look and turn my eyes back to the road. She covers the phone with one hand, and whispers, “You need to tell him we’re moving. Hurry up then.” Then she clicks on speakerphone and lays the phone down, where my father’s voice spills into the air between us.

He starts talking almost at once, telling me that he wishes he’d called me back sooner and he meant to tell me they’d thought it would be nice to have us over for dinner and they could really try to give Sarah another chance, as long as I wasn’t too silly about anything.

“Dad.” I can hear my own voice crackle on the line, little bits of static darting in like sparks.

“-you know how your mother is, of course we’ll get back to you on that. Nice to talk to you, Sam.” He’s still rushing over me, words clattering. Sarah moves the phone to slip into the cup holder and my dad’s voice is suddenly floating in the air by my ear, the sound thin and strained now.

“Dad,” I say louder. “Listen!”

He stops, and I stumble in the sudden silence. “I wanted to talk to you. I mean talk, can I talk for a minute?”

I can hear his sigh puff against the phone. He’s nodding, I bet. “Sure, sweetie, go ahead.”

“Um, okay,” I say, the words stark and loud now. The quiet stretches and stays. He sighs again.

How do I form the words? When he heard I had a new girlfriend he didn’t call me back for a week. He avoided asking where I lived or what I did. He pretended she didn’t exist, and now he wanted to have us over for dinner. Maybe, I thought, he would be okay with this. Maybe he would be okay with this if I weren’t about to move across the country with my girlfriend, hours away with a new job, a new house, and a new family.

I’m distracted now. I suck in a breath and let it slide out between my teeth, turning my attention back to the road amongst the gray shapes of the cars and the shadows enveloping everything. The lines between us and the rest of the highway are lengthening, coming together to block us off, and there’s a sign we’re about to pass – EXIT ONLY, it says, Exit 21 to Scarsdale. I don’t want to go that way. I signal and move into the next lane, fitting neatly between a clunky old car and a sleek little sedan.

My dad is still waiting on the phone, the silence stretching long and flat. “I don’t know, Dad,” I say. “I guess I forgot, we’ll talk later though. Sarah and I would love to come over for dinner. Can I call you back once I get home, since I’m in the car?”

“Sure,” he says, “talk to you in a little while then.” The phone beeps and goes quiet, and I can feel Sarah’s stare on me. I snatch a glance and she’s frowning. She doesn’t even need to ask. I know she thinks something’s wrong, because I didn’t tell him we were leaving.

“Oh,” I tell her. “It’s fine. I’ll tell him later.”

A Kid on the Plane

Tom liked airplanes. He liked the dry taste of the air and the faint ding as the lights went on or the seatbelt sign blinked away. Most of all he liked the television fixed in the seat back in front of him, and the channels waiting for him to scroll through them. “Friends” was on, and he smiled faintly when the laughter scrolled over the characters’ voices.

After several minutes, he tapped on the seat in front of him. “Mom,” he said, “can I use your iPad?” The tablet was duly handed back and he set about playing on it, clicking buttons until cartoon characters shifted and moved. There was a grown-up lady in the seat next to him, and he showed her his cartoon. She smiled, clearly not all that interested, so he showed her another one.

The flight all the way to New York was a long one. Tom watched six more episodes of “Friends” and then two of a sitcom he didn’t know. Then he played with the iPad again. The lady next to him asked if he’d ever read a book called – oh, he’d forgotten the title. He told her he didn’t read much.

When the plane landed and everyone got off, Tom shuffled down the aisle and out along with his mother. She hefted his backpack onto her shoulder and they walked toward the baggage claim. The lady who sat next to him was going in the other direction. She waved at him, but he didn’t see her.

Might Have Happened

If she had stopped, earlier, instead of listening to the drum of her feet and the hiss of her breath, then things might have been different. Tina would have stopped to talk to the old woman for more than half a moment, would have sat beside her on the sidewalk and kept talking. The old woman’s lined face might have lit up then, settling into a well-worn but forgotten smile.

Tina would have asked her what she was doing, why she ended up there, what she wanted with her life before anything had happened to it. The old woman would have introduced herself as Rebecca, and shaken her hand. Then the old woman talked, for a long time it seemed, letting the pent-up shut-tight held-in words all pour out in a bewildered rush. Tina liked to listen, and listening to this one woman would have been the same. She sat and nodded, her eyes intent, her ears drinking in the rusty voice.

The old woman’s story was a long and convoluted one. Rebecca told Tina about the husband who’d left her, the sister who took a plane and never came back, the child who ran away at fourteen and never came back. It would have been very sad, and Rebecca might have said, “Everybody leaves in my life. I never see anyone again, and I don’t even know if my baby is dead or alive.” Her voice was quavering. Tina hugged her impetuously, hiding her tears in Rebecca’s shoulder.

When Tina finally got up to go, she creaked to standing and held the side of the building. She teetered there on the sidewalk for a moment, and then she pulled up Rebecca with her. It took some coaxing, but she got Rebecca walking and into the nearest café, where she bought the older woman a sandwich and fiddled with her phone for a moment. She felt guilty about using an expensive electronic in front of Rebecca, but she kept her head bent low, only peeping up to ask Rebecca’s last name.

After lunch, she copied down a few numbers and gave the scribbled napkin to the old woman, and explained, “I got you a room at this motel, and here’s your confirmation number. You can stay there as long as you need until you get back on your feet.” Rebecca, her eyes welling, would hug Tina and hold her close, and they would part with kisses on the cheek and promises to stay in touch.

Tina didn’t know what would have happened after that, eventually. Perhaps Rebecca would have left the motel and refused to keep taking her help. Perhaps she would have gotten a job and a home of her own. That was where the story always seemed to get murky, in the aftermath once other people’s actions could go in any direction.

The train was groaning to a stop, and Tina stepped out. She shook her head, flinging the daydreams away. The old woman on the sidewalk had given her a piercing blue look as she’d walked by, and she’d stooped to drop a dollar into the paper cup. Time to let her thoughts wander on something else now.

The Sleepless Widow

Jen sometimes took walks in the dark. It was oddly peaceful to slip out after the streetlights winked on and the shadows engulfed the streets, to walk through the glow of a light and then swim blind through the shadows only toward the next bright spot. When everything was quiet she would leave, her dishes tumbled in the sink and the bedroom light left on. When the door clicked closed she was suddenly back in the world, not in the house that wrapped her tight and kept her closed off.

When she walked down the street, there was nobody there. She only had to navigate past the odd trash bag spilled out over the sidewalk, belated leftover from the garbage truck. Her thoughts rose up around her and spiraled out, and she followed their threads as she walked. She was so caught up in her mind that she nearly bumped into an elderly woman, stepping with slow solemn care along the sidewalk.

Jen said, “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“That’s all right, dear,” said the lady. “I understand. After all, I’m taking a walk at night too, right?”

Jen fixed a polite smile on her face and nodded. “Yes, certainly. Do you walk often?” She cursed herself silently for starting a conversation, realizing too late.

“Sometimes,” the woman confided, leaning toward Jen. “Sometimes I just can’t sleep, and my house is empty now. Then there’s really nothing for it but this dark sorcery of the night, don’t you know?”

Jen looked up at her, startled. The old lady was grinning, but her face was sweetly set in wrinkles and her eyes gleamed with the yellow shine of the streetlights.

Jen nodded cautiously, and said, “I suppose so.”

The lady let out a chuckle at that, and said, “It’s quite all right, sweetie. What brings you out at this odd hour?”

“I just like to walk at night,” she said. “That’s all.”

The old woman laughed again. “Yes, of course. And at night you never know whom you might meet.”

Jen’s eyebrows drew together, but the old woman was still smiling. “I met you.”

“Just so, then.” The woman, a smile still stretched over her creased face, nodded at her and turned her face forward again, taking a small step on the concrete.

She walked slowly after that, looking behind her every now and then. There was nothing remarkable there, though, just the shape of the old lady disappearing slowly in the night.

When Jen got back home, she stretched across the cool sheets of the bed and curled her hands in the blankets. She was tired after a long walk, and she fell asleep into restless dreams of moonlight and magic.

The Perils of Everyday

When the cars speed past, their rumble grows and swallows Meg whole, only to let go as they pass and leave. The noise relaxes and she tumbles out of it, swaying slightly as they round the bend. Her hand is wrapped around the metal pole, the thin edge of it pressing a line into her skin. The old man in the rain hat next to her is peering into her face sideways, and she pulls on a smile for him, faintly and without much conviction. He grins at her under his bushy mustache.

The bus appears at the edge of the road, barreling down the hill with a roar. When it shivers to a halt before them, smelling of oil and metal, she starts and digs in her bag for coins. The bus doors are starting to close when she scrambles onto the steps and clinks the coins down. There is only one seat empty, so Meg plants herself there and hugs her purse to her chest.

“Hi there,” says the lady sitting at the window. “Are you a follower of Christ our Lord?”

Meg tries to put on a polite smile, and shakes her head just enough to see.

“No?” The woman’s eyes widen, wrinkles creasing her forehead. “Why you devil, then! Go take your red skin and your tail down under, into the sewers, flames and all.”

 

Inside of Bus

Photo credit: Carolyn Coles

The words worm into her ears and she flinches, hunched and small in the bus seat. She looks straight down at the ridges of the floor, keeping her face averted. Her heart is pounding painfully in her chest. The woman leans closer.

“You think you can escape, oh no. You’ll be burning with the rest of them, oh you evil thing you. Nobody loves a sinner, you know.” The woman’s voice is grating, high and unwieldy. The bus lurches to a stop, and Meg gets up. She has to sidle around the crazy lady, ducking past her and letting her steps propel her onto the sidewalk and then a few paces more. When she peeps up, nobody has followed her. She begins to walk, sucking in a deep breath. The supermarket is at the next stop, but it’s only a couple of blocks. Meg slings her purse over her shoulder and scuttles around the homeless man draped over the curb, his cardboard sign tilting dangerously in the wind.

When she gets to the story, she swings a basket out of the stack and surprises herself with the motion. The first few feet inside the door are piled with pots of flowers, and she walks through the yellow-and-pink sweet-scented flurry – two for ten! – and then dives into the produce aisle. There the bushy handfuls of parsley and the streak of red in the rubber-banded chard calm her. This is familiar, gently dripping water, and perfectly ordinary.

After a moment judging weight and bruised spots, she reaches for a plastic bag. The quick movement of another person makes her cringe, but when she looks up it is the old man from the bus stop, with his rain hat and mustache. He looks just as startled by her for a moment, but then his face relaxes with recognition.

“Oh!” he says. “You again, hello!”

She feels so grateful to him that she smiles, her eyes vague, and can’t think of any words. He gives her a rather worried smile back and hurries away, leaving her lost, unsteady, clutching a bell pepper and staring after a stranger.