It was an unassuming tea shop in the middle of the city. The only reason anyone would even glance at it again was to think, ‘Huh. A tea shop. Odd. Can’t get much business.’
In fact, business was booming.
Saying all the women in the city knew about the tea shop would be a hyperbolic. New women moved in. Girls grew up. People transitioned. Every day there was someone new to learn about the tea shop.
Always, the tea shop was mentioned in hushed tones. Murmurs. Discussions in front of the bathroom mirrors and bridal parties and baby showers. Places where the men, affronted at the thought of being surrounded by pinks and purples and kept from their precious beer and sports and tractors, would never dream to be seen.
These men were not all men, of course. There were plenty of men in the city who had no problem and even enjoyed being surrounded by and doing ‘girly things.’ These men also knew about the tea shop. These men could be customers of the tea shop, if they wanted.
The men who did not know about the tea shop were the ones the tea shop was for.
Zoey doesn’t quite know if she believes in the tea shop or not, but she has completely run out of other options. He had taken her to this city, clear on the other side of the continent, long before he let his true colors show. When the things he whispered in her ear sent shivers down her back. The little family she has are thousands of miles away, poor, and, to be frank, terrible people. If she called them for help they would probably gloat.
She has made no friends. At first, it was sweet he wanted her to stay in the house. Protect her. Zoey took care of the house and he took care of the bills. Wasn’t that a cute way to be?
In fact, couples all across the city made it a cute way to be.
He, of course, did not.
She only leaves the house to do grocery shopping now. He gives her money and expects a receipt and exact change. He will scour it. Make sure she has not pocketed any of it away. Tell her it’s for her own safety, her own good, she’s so bad with numbers.
Everything he does is deemed for her own good.
Until recently, Zoey believed it.
She was at the grocery store just yesterday. Pushing the carriage. Walking slow. Baby bump pressing against the cold metal. Hoping no one would ask her why she was wearing sunglasses inside. Prepared with the lie she had rehearsed on the walk over.
“The baby is giving me migraines, the light hurts my eyes.”
Zoey got looks, of course, but no one said anything. Not until she passed the bathroom in the back and the baby jumped on her bladder and in she ran, barely time to grab her purse from the front.
An older woman was washing her hands when she came out of the stall. By the time Zoey was washing her hands, the older woman was staring. That nosy older woman way of staring, all pointed eyes and mouth pulled in to a sour look. Zoey began to feel defensive. How dare this woman judge her!
“Do you know of the tea shop?”
“The baby is giving…me…what?”
This was not what Zoey had expected to hear.
“The tea shop. Falling Leaves? Between Eastern and Province?”
This had not been what Zoey had been expecting, and for a second her thoughts were scattered like so many dried tea leaves to the wind. She didn’t know this woman. She didn’t know the tea shop. She didn’t know what city she was in.
Slowly, with prickles, it all came back to her.
“I think I’ve seen it.” She had certainly walked down that street.
“You should go,” the woman said. She was staring directly through the sunglasses, directly to the purple and green and yellow blossoming from her left eye. “For your health. And the baby’s.”
The older woman left, the door swung shut, and Zoey dried her hands slowly, pretending she was completely confused by why the old woman had recommended a tea shop of all things.
Yes, she must be confused. Because if she wasn’t confused, well, the whole thing made less sense than it already did!
Here she is, though, at the tea shop. Falling Leaves, between Eastern and Province, just like the older woman said. She doesn’t know why she’s here. If he finds out, he’ll…he’ll…
That’s why you’re here.
She ignores the thought and goes inside.
It is a tea shop. Sitting on old wooden shelves covered in delicate lace doilies are large jars filled with loose leaf tea. A table with paper bags and a scale sit nearby. Pick your tea. Scoop your tea. Pay for your tea. Easy enough.
The woman behind the counter looks up from a magazine as the bell rings and she smiles. The smiles falters as she catches the colors bleeding from Zoey’s eye.
And then it becomes wider.
Not the sort of wide smiles she catches from other men in public. Sharks’ smiles. No, this is a safe smile. A calm smile. A smile that tells Zoey everything will be okay.
“You are new,” the woman behind the counter says. “Step up to the counter. Let me tell you how it works.”
“I think I can see,” Zoey says. But she dutifully steps up to the counter.
“For the most part,” the woman says. She is beautiful. Handsome. A good chin and strong cheekbones and so tall! She wears no makeup but has a nose ring and a piercing at her eyebrow and so much metal in her ears.
“Pick your tea…or whatever tea he would drink,” the woman says.
The woman winks at her, the eyebrow piercing flicking. “We must keep the men happy, mustn’t we?”
Zoey walks the aisles, thinking. He doesn’t drink tea. Never tea. Coffee and beer, mostly. Whiskey and energy drinks sometimes. Never tea. But maybe he doesn’t have to drink the tea. Maybe he doesn’t have to know its there at all. There. A big jar of lavender. She stops and stares at it for a few seconds, and then feel compelled to look at the woman again.
“He doesn’t drink tea,” she says. “But it’s summer, and do you know what he loves?’
The woman gives her a look that says, yes. I can see what he loves.
“He loves lavender lemonade. With vodka. It’s his favorite summer cocktail. I learned how to make it.”
Zoey scoops up lavender into a little bag and doesn’t bother to weigh it. It’s only as she reaches the counter that she wonders if she has enough.
He doesn’t let her have money. But he does let her walk. People still drop change, even in this day and age. Over a few years, she has managed to collect five dollars of pennies and dimes and the occasional quarter into an old coffee canister.
“You won’t pay with that,” the woman says, pointing at the canister.
“You’ll pay by telling someone.”
Zoey’s heart turns to ice. “Telling someone?”
The woman laughs, understanding. “Not telling anyone that. You never have to tell anyone that. You will tell someone about the tea shop. Someday, you will see someone, and you will understand, and you will tell them.”
Zoey laughs. “I still don’t understand.”
The woman only nods at her. Zoey may not understand, but the woman does.
The tea Zoey has picked sits between them, and the woman stares at the bag.
“Take it home,” she says, not looking away. “And as you are going home, hold it in your hands. Imagine what would be easiest for you. Whatever that is, imagine it over and over. Chant it to yourself. In your head, of course, we don’t want people to think you’re crazy. Whatever is easiest. That is what you think of. Whatever is easiest.”
It’s a fifteen minute walk back to the little apartment, and Zoey does what she’s told. She brews the tea, gets the lemons, and when he has come home, his favorite summer cocktail is waiting for him.
He doesn’t think anything is wrong as he drinks one. Two. Three. All of it. All of it gone.
Zoey watches him closely, unsure what to expect. She doesn’t drink any. He doesn’t think that’s odd. She is, after all, very pregnant. He’d stopped letting her drink years ago, anyway.
Whatever is easiest, the woman had said. Zoey hadn’t had to think hard about it.
He works at the paper mill. Zoey has heard horror stories, mostly from him. There are tanks. Pulpers, they are called. Big open tanks, full of a boiling caustic solution and spinning blades. If someone were to fall in there, there would be nothing left.
If someone were to fall in there, their family would get money from the company.
The next day, Zoey is humming to herself when she gets the phone call.
She cries very well at his funeral. He has made her a very good crier.
It does not take long for her to pay her price. She gives birth a few weeks later. A healthy baby boy. One who will know about the tea shop when he grows up, she will make sure of it.
But that will be in a few years. For now, one of her nurses is trying to hide bruises under scrub sleeves and has a mousy way of looking at everything. Zoey waits until they are alone before she asks.
“Do you know of the tea shop?”