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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Expectation

Dora had a plan. More of a script, really. It wasn’t so much that she decided it would happen, though. Rather this was just how she knew it would probably go. She would get there – step off the train – and Annie would be there. Their eyes would meet, and Dora would feel the smile spreading irresistibly across her face as she saw the matching grin on Annie’s. They would walk toward each other, and be pulled into an embrace. Annie would press a kiss onto her cheek, and it would be the softest touch she could imagine. She would be able to feel the imprint of those lips on her skin for days, the ghost of a kiss that lingered.

Annie would say, “I’m so glad you’re finally here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too,” Dora would answer. “More than you know.”

Their hands would tighten around each other, and Annie would sneak a look at her. “I think I know. What do you want to do first, now that you’re here?”

Dora would pretend to think about it for a minute. “I don’t know. Since we’re in town, we might as well go to the Bean.”

That same smile would light Annie’s face again, and their steps would turn that way without thinking. They would walk there as they had so long ago, and as they walked the memories might bloom.

Annie would say, “So Brian is living in California now. Remember how he always joked about surfers? He’s totally dating one now. At least one, that is, you know Brian.”

Dora would laugh with delight, as she always did. “Right, but did you hear that Tina’s got a job already? A steady one, I mean.”

They would talk like that, easy and familiar, until they got there. Once they were inside, with the warm smell of coffee surrounding them, Annie would walk up to the register. She’d order both their drinks, not forgetting the two extra shots of espresso that she always teased Dora for.

The loudspeaker blared and Dora started. That was her stop – it would be silly if she were so far away daydreaming that she didn’t get off the train at the right place. She heaved her bag to her shoulder and edged down the aisle, past the knees and handbags that spilled out past the seats. As she stepped onto the platform, she didn’t hear her name. She had to wait and look around before she spotted Annie, hurrying toward her. She’d cut her hair – it was curling around her jaw now. Dora blinked at her, a little disoriented by the swarm of people rushing around her. Annie reached her and stopped, then leaned to peck her cheek.

“Hi,” Dora said.

“Hi.”

“Good to see you.”

Annie smiled, a strained expression. It looked like she was biting her lip. “You too. It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah, it really has. Do, um, do you want to get a cup of coffee?”

“Okay.”

They walked side by side through the streets. Dora’s mouth was dry, and her hands were clenched on the strap of her bag. When they reached the front door of the Bean, they both tried to go in at once. After a moment of shuffling out of place for one another, Dora stepped back and pulled the door open for Annie, who flashed that strained smile at her again. Dora followed her inside.

Annie stepped up to the counter and Dora stood next to her, and when the scruffy teenager walked over to the register they both started to speak at once. Dora snapped shut her mouth, and forced a smile.

Annie said, “I’d like a chai, please. And for her, could you make a mocha? With two extra shots of espresso, right?” She grinned, a real smile, and Dora smiled back.