Warning: Some expletives
Saturday morning is Leo’s favorite one of the week. Not only is he able to sleep in until nine thirty in the morning--because elementary school is rough on him, making him wake up at seven--but he’s also able to amble around his father’s tea house.
It’s a quaint little shack. Leo never knows how he manages to get there. He just walks out of the house, plops into the backseat of his dad’s Ford f150, and feels the vibrations of the engine as they pass through a forest of spiny trees. Today, however, was going to play out differently. Not only is it flawlessly sunny out, but Leo’s dad let him sit in the front seat this time. For elementary kids, this is quite the rite of passage. Screw puberty and it’s complicated rollercoaster of raging hormones. The front seat is where it’s at.
Leo swings his feet back and forth--a typical policy of his pounding heart and tingling fingers. He sticks his tiny thumb in a hole he carved into the worn fabric of the seat. His dad had pulled his window down, his black hair running wild over his forehead and cheeks. Leo nudges the button to pull his own lower, but the button jams the second he presses it. Oops. Hopefully dad won’t notice that.
Today’s operation: taste the tea. Leo’s been dying to see what this tea is all about. His dad drinks it all the time, and as far as Leo knows, with no cream or sugar. A complement of his personality--rough, gruff, and tough.
Leo’s body sways in the seat to a familiar turn. He lifts his butt off of the seat with his arms and peers through the bottom of the window. Low and behold, his dad’s workplace. Etched on the side of the wood-panelled frame of the shack read Tom’s Tea House.
When the door flings open, Leo practically coos at the sight of Robert, one of dad’s trusted partners. Where dad is all tall and sinewy, Robert is compact and plump. He wears a worn baseball cap on his head, the threads of the lettering coming off in tendrils to the point where Leo can’t make out what it said when it was in peak condition.
“‘Oodmernin’, Leonardo,” Robert smiles. He pats the boy on the shoulder with enough force it causes Leo to stumble on the gravel awkwardly. “Come to werk with yer father again?”
“I get to work with dad today?” Leo chirps. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! He never told me that!” He spins on his heels to see his dad slamming the backdoor of the truck closed, a duffle bag slinging over his shoulder. “Do I? Do I?”
His dad rounds the corner. With one long, tan arm, he reaches for the little dude’s head and scruffs his hair with his hand. “Of course you do, Leo. You’ve earned it. You got all A’s, didn’t you?”
Leo sinks back into himself. “I…Got a B. In math.”
His dad snorts. “Oh, good enough. Be proud of yourself, sport. Math is bullshit, anyways.” As he falls into a step toward the front door, he mutters, “Because you wouldn’t want to do what I do.”
Leo doesn't add anything to the comment, impartial to what it meant. Rather, he beats his dad to the front door and barrels through it. The stuffiness of the shack already makes his back slick with a layer of perspiration--but Leo pays no mind to it. It’s the price of the privilege.
His dad’s employees all turn instantly. A second of silence passes before they all break into grins and chuckles. Yep, that’s right. Leo is quite the golden boy here.
“Leo-Leo!” This time, it’s Hank that’s summoning him. He finishes fastening the clip on a plastic pouch. “Good to see you, little dude.”
Leo places his hands on his hips and harrumphs. “I’m going to be ten next month. I’m not little anymore.”
Hank nods. “Hell yeah. Then, big dude.”
“Much better.” Leo reaches on the tips of his toes and pats Hank on the chest.
“Leo,” his dad calls. “My office. Come on.”
Leo legs it to the other side of the shack. He waves to the workers as he passes by, sometimes slips them a high five or a fist pump--with having to make quite the leap to reach them--until he makes it to the back room.
Well, not necessarily room. More like…Area sectioned off by cardboard boxes? Yeah. That sounds a lot more accurate.
Leo’s dad illuminates a tiny lamp, which is more so a stick with a light bulb, since something must have happened to the lamp shade. Leo imagines it growing legs and walking away. He snorts.
When his dad sits down with a huff, concern strikes him. His dad is getting more worn down every day he comes back from work. He never knew how bad it was in the morning.
His dad clutches his back while pointing over Leo’s shoulder. “Grab me my bag, will you?” When Leo does as ordered, he mumbles, “Thanks, sport.”
Leo can’t stop observing his father’s winces and grunts. Every time he adjusts on the flat, cushionless school chair, he whistles in pain. Leo can read the agony on his father’s face. “Maybe tea will help?”
The corner of his dad’s mouth quirks up. He takes a moment to answer. “Tea would help...Yes," he answers cautiously.
He zips open the duffle bag and begins to take out little pouches. Leo steps closer, peeking into the bag. His dad gently tugs it away from him.
Leo pouts. “Why can’t I see?”
“Secret mission. Like men in black.”
“That movie is for old people.”
His dad presses his lips together. “You calling me old, kid?”
His dad leans back and crosses his arms. “What is it. Somethin’s on your mind, I can tell. And if it’s about your damn momma again, I’m going to--”
“I want to try tea.”
Dad’s eyes blink for a few beats. For the first time, Leo can’t detect anything on his expression. It’s blank. Dull. Empty… But analytical. Finally, he runs a hand down his face. “No.”
“Why?” Leo immediately whines.
“Children can't have tea. It has… Too much caffeine.”
“You drink caffeine. Why can’t I?”
His father jerks his chin at him. “Do you want to have a heart attack at ten?”
Alarm sparks through Leo. There’s a pang in his chest, and although he doesn’t really know what a heart attack is, he clutches onto his shirt. “No.”
“Shit. Sorry, sport. I didn’t mean to scare you like that. You won’t have one. It’s just…Caffeine can make you wild, and you’re more than wild enough.”
Leo sighs when his father reaches over and pinches his cheek. To ruin the cherishable moment, cardboard boxes fly all around Leo, some smacking him in the calf.
“Chill out, Robert,” his dad curses. “One box can knock the kid down.”
Leo has no time to retort his father’s response with another brag of his manliness when Robert tumbles over the words, “Der’suminyeneedasay.”
His dad knots his bushy brows. “What? Annunciate, Robert. Annunciate.”
Robert inhales and tries one more time, this time more audibly. “‘Der’s sumin’ yer needa see.”
“What is it?”
Robert kicks his head over his shoulder to gesture Leo’s dad out. Leo’s dad pinches the bridge of his nose, urges his son to stay, and walks out of his freshly disoriented office.
Leo puts a bubble in his mouth as he kicks a box with his toe. “Took me a week to set that up,” he curses to himself. Just then, something catches his peripheral vision. All bulky and fabricy and alluring.
Look inside, Leo, it calls. Look inside and find out.
Leo chews on his lip--a poor habit he adopted from his momma. He tiptoes to his dad’s desk, rounds where his dad sat, climbs up on it, and flips the top of the duffel bag over.
He picks up a pouch in his hand. “Tea.”
Right when he goes to open it, a hand snatches it from him. It’s Hank. “Damn it, lit--big dude. You can’t try the tea yet.”
“Give that back, Hank.” Leo attempts to be taller than the man. Hank is only twenty. Leo interprets that as a mere ten years older. But why was he still practically ten feet taller even when he stands on the chair?
“No. This stuff will send you straight to hell, I tell ya,” Hank voices firmly.
Leo switches his eyes between the packet and Hank’s green eyes. “I can’t believe I am doing this.” To mimic his dad, he pinches the bridge of his nose, squares his shoulders, and pokes his chin up. He then sticks his hand out, palm up. “Hand that back. As son-of-the-tea-maker and co-owner-of-the-tea-house, I am firing you.”
Hank reels back. “What? You can’t--”
His words die off his lips when there’s a bang, boom, pop! Light spills into the shack as big men in big black suits with big black guns spill into it, filling the room up like gas particles.
Hank doesn’t even glance behind him. A single bead of sweat dribbles from his forehead to his jaw as his eyes round. “Shit,” he curses.
Leo, albeit confused, also mouths, “Shit.”
Because he still hasn’t gotten his damn tea.
“Wait! That’s my dad! What are you doing with him?” Leo screams as he flies through the front door. He witnesses his dad being shouldered into the back of a cop car alongside Robert.
His quads burn when he picks up speed and sprints to the door. His hands slap against the window, his tiny handprints staining the black tint of the glass. “Dad, what are they doing?” he sobs.
His dad says nothing. He looks away as if he’s the child in this situation being scolded by a parent.
“You must be Leo Thomas,” a manly voices behind him. Still, Leo doesn’t turn. He uses the reflection of the window to see two tall, bulky men hovering behind him. They’re clad in a suit and tie, reminding Leo of the single get-up that his dad would wear on his dates with momma.
The bald one on the right steps forward. “Leo, you must come with us. This is a serious ma--”
He’s interrupted by the other man’s lift of his hand. This man is much more manicured than his father. Blonde and clean and crisp. Does he have kids like his dad? Does he run a tea house?
“We are going to help you, Leo. But you have to help us first, okay?”
Leo turns his neck to see his dad, who now stares down in the car. A cop orders Leo to step back. Eyeballing the pistol at his waist, he obeys, watching the car roll off down the gravel path.
Unwillingly, Leo follows the two men inside of the shack. He’s never seen it so empty. So dead. Today was supposed to be the best day ever. He was supposed to taste tea for the first time and be the apprentice of his dad. Now, he’s the last man standing. This is not a price of privilege. Leo is learning that it’s a consequence. A punishment.
They dodge the other men in hazmat suits that pour the tea out of their pouches into larger ones. The two men gesture for Leo to sit down on his dad’s school chair. Leo stands tall. Sitting will just show his inferiority.
“Leo,” the manicured man says, “My name is Detective Richards, and this is my partner Detective O'brien. We work for the LAPD and need to ask you some important questions. In return, you can help your father get freed.”
“Freed?” Leo’s throat tightens as tears begin to prick at his eyes. He’s so confused. So alone. Where is his dad? Where have they taken him?
Detective Richards rubs the tip of his nose. “How long has your dad had this shack?”
“I don’t know. And it’s called the Tea House, not this shack.” Leo spits the last word like it’s acid. He could really use some warm tea to soothe his aggravation.
“Alright, then. Tell us about today. Why are you here? Do you know what they’re doing here?”
“We make tea.”
Detective Richards intakes a gulp of air, shoving his hands into his black slacks. Beside him, Detective O’brien scribbles on a notepad. “...Tea?”
Leo nods slowly.
“Like the drink?”
Another brisk nod.
“Can I get a sample, please?” Detective Richards calls over his shoulder. When a hazmat-suited man brings one over, he wraps it in his fist.
Detective Richards side-eyes his partner. He then leans down on one knee, sighing. Something empathetic crosses his face, drawing Leo’s intimidation narrower. “Look, kid. There are two things that tea doesn’t do, and that’s get you high and arrested.”
“Arrested?” Leo sputters. “Arrested for what?”
He then unfurls his fingers, the pouch being presented right in front of Leo’s nose. This is the closest he’s ever seen the tea. A white powder fills half of the pouch.
“This isn’t a tea house, Leo,” the Detective drawls. “It’s a crack house.”