Originally published in the MockingOwl Roost in the “Community” issue published October 15, 2021 on page 40.
The hazy world plunged me into darkness as night fell. I hadn’t seen sunlight in a week thanks to the rain rolling in from the intense storm that seemed to sit over Illyria that month. A cold chill ran down my spine, stopping abruptly at my hips.
The clink of china pulled my eyes back indoors. Susannah looked at me. “Ahem.”
“I’m sorry, Sus,” I shrugged. “I was… distracted for a minute there.”
“You always seem to be these days.” She glanced past me toward the counter of my favorite tea shop.
“Stop it! He’s not my type.”
“Oh, surely you don’t expect me to believe that?” Susannah laughed.
“Well, okay. He’s my type. I’m just not his.”
“Have you even asked him out?”
“You know that’s not my style.”
“When was the last time you had a date?”
I muttered an unintelligible response.
“I thought so. Ask him out, girl. Seriously. He’s so cute. You know I’d love to go out with a guy like that. You’ve got to let me live vicariously through you!”
“Sus!” I rolled my eyes at her.
“Come on. Give a girl a break.”
I looked at her, shook my head, and picked up my own cup. The steam rising from the cup of Rooibos evoked memories from the day Susannah and I met. Well, the first time we’d talked, anyway. We were both a part of the massive touring chorale from college, on tour in South Africa, where the tea comes from. We’d been in it for a whole year together, but both of us were always so busy we only got to know the people immediately in our vicinity in the choir. At least, that’s what I told myself whenever somebody asked me the names of the other members whom I didn’t know. I was still amazed at that girl who knew every single person’s name and story.
“I can’t ask him out,” I repeated, inhaling the earthy sweet scent once more.
“If you don’t, I’ll ask him for you!” she threatened.
“Don’t you dare! The looks I’d get! The… No. Don’t you dare.”
“Fine. But you’d better do it. Today.”
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “Give me a minute.”
“I’ll give you ten.”
I grunted and took a sip. The steaming red liquid slid down my throat, coating my esophagus with the earthen brew and a comforting warmth. “I hate you.”
“No you don’t,” Susannah laughed. “You love me or you wouldn’t have tea with me here every month.”
I groaned. “Fine. I do. Damn the consequences.”
Susannah laughed. “Damn them all!”
I inhaled sharply and leaned forward, setting down the delicate pink bud covered teacup. “Okay. I’m going to do it.”
“Do it!” Susannah chanted loudly.
“Shut up!” I squeaked at her.
I gulped and looked up. He was standing there. “I’m so sorry. I… uh… I didn’t mean you.”
When I say the man was an Adonis, I don’t just mean he had the body of the god-like creatures that myths and romance novels are built upon. He was a genetic anomaly of beauty. His rich, dark skin was so opaque and seamless it looked truly black. And the exceptionally unusual steel grey eyes peeked out from his rich, dark face like the sun shining in the night sky.
“I’m glad to hear that.” A smile spread across his face. “You’re my favorite customer. I wouldn’t want to think I could offend you so.”
I laughed nervously.
“Can I get you some more tea? Milk maybe? You said you first drank it that way in Cape Town, right?”
I gulped and nodded.
“My gran always teased me for drinking Rooibos with cream,” he grinned back. “Fun being a little wild, eh?”
If that was his idea of “wild” maybe I stood a chance after all. “Sure is.”
He laughed again, showing all his brilliant white teeth. “I’ll be right back. I’ve got something for you.”
He returned soon with a platter of green tea and Rooibos macarons, a few tea biscuits I knew were imported from England, and a fat slab of lamington, made from his other grandmother’s authentic Australian recipe.
“You are a god,” I muttered, then blushed and looked away.
“That’s what my gran always told me,” he laughed. “Might be because I praised everything she did, though.”
I smiled now.
“Enjoy. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” I blushed.
He walked away, lightly laughing that sweet sort of musical spurt of a genuine soul.
“I told you,” Susannah said.
“Oh, he just knows I like sweets,” I rolled my eyes.
“Look around you, woman. Everyone here likes sweets,” Susannah laughed.
“I… I suppose. But that doesn’t mean…”
“Oh, shush. You know it does. Now, get up off your little rear and walk over to that counter. He threw open the door for you. Ask him out.”
I crammed one of the Rooibos macarons into my mouth, sighed in utter bliss, then blinked back the fear that pounded my heart through a mambo. “Okay.”
I stood up.
“Eh,” Susannah pointed at the napkin on my side of the table.
“Oh, right. Uh…”
I wiped off a blob of Rooibos cream filling. For a second, I almost licked it off the napkin but managed to control myself. You are in public, Hailey. Behave!
Inhaling and exhaling like a hyperventilating bellows, I stepped up to the counter.
“What did you think?” he asked.
“Oh, my heavens!” I burst in a very unladylike manner. “To die for!”
“I can’t believe it took me that long to figure out how to use Rooibos for macarons.”
“They are truly miraculous,” I acknowledged.
“I’m glad you think so.”
I stared at him awkwardly for a moment.
He smiled. “What can I do for you? More cream? Tea?”
“I, uh…” I looked over my shoulder. Susannah rolled her eyes and waved at me. I exhaled long and nervously. “Um… So… I … uh…”
He smiled at me, a gentler, softer smile parting his lips now. “Would you like to get dinner with me sometime?”
My heart stopped for a second. “Yes,” I said without thought. “I, uh…”
“Great!” he beamed. “I know a great little Jamaican place.”
“I love Jamaican food.”
“Perfect,” he smiled.
We looked at each other for a moment before I started blushing. “Maybe Friday?”
“Perfect,” he repeated. “Say, seven?”
“Um, I could pick you up, or…?”
I nodded, exhaling again. “Sure. I, uh… Let’s see. On Friday I’ll be working downtown. Um, maybe I should meet you somewhere instead? Long drive from here…”
“Sure,” he nodded. “We could meet there, if you’d prefer.”
“Perfect,” I repeated his response now.
We exchanged numbers and I hurriedly went to sit down before my legs collapsed beneath me.
“What did I tell you?”
“Shut up,” I hissed at Susannah.
“Well, my work here is done. I suppose I should beat it.”
I stared at her. “What?”
“I don’t think I can meet you anymore,” she shrugged.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this was it. My assignment. My… Purpose.”
“To get me a date?”
“I think so, yeah. I feel all tingly now. I think that was it.”
“But we’ve been meeting for nearly two years. Every single month.”
“You remember where I died, right?”
I gulped back a lump. “Right there on the corner… On the way to meet me here. We…”
“Shh. Don’t go fretting over that. It was my time.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to believe your sole mission of the afterlife was to help get me together with Minenhle?”
“I think it was.”
“Well, I’ve been doing some other things between our tea dates.”
“I’ve said my goodbyes, for one.”
“But what if I’m not ready to say goodbye?”
“You’re ready now.”
“Why? Because I just met the love of my life?” I snorted.
“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I just… I think this is it for me.”
“I’ll see you later. Er, well. Maybe not. I guess in heaven maybe?”
“Is there a heaven?”
“I’m about to find out, I think.”
I sat there, staring across the table at her apparition. I thought maybe she’d melt away. I wasn’t ready to let her go. But what could I do? I had no control over eternity.
“Are you going to fade or something?” I asked after several awkward minutes of waiting for… something.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe I’ll just disappear when I go outside?”
“Then don’t go outside. Stay here.”
Susannah laughed. “I love tea. But even I don’t think I could stand living in a tea shop for eternity. You’ve got to let me go.”
The china clinked again. I looked up to see Minenhle looking over at me, smiling.
“See. You’ll be all right. He’s a good one.”
“I love you, Hailey. Be good to yourself. And him.”
She stood up, smiling at me. “Yep. This is it.”
I expected maybe a light or a trail of cloudy, sparkly dust or something. But she just looked at me for another second, sighing, then she walked out the door.
“You okay?” Minenhle stopped by my table. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I nodded. “For the last time, it seems.”
He looked me over for a moment and nodded. “I thought there was something going on here. Always felt a chill right there, whenever you came in – and I knew it wasn’t you.”
I nodded. “Wait. You could…?”
“Well, yeah,” he nodded, tossing a glance over his shoulder to an empty chair tucked into the corner. “That’s my gran. There’s something about this building. Kind of… Familiar spaces.”
“Familiar spaces,” I echoed. I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt right.