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.


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