“You look like you have a lot on your mind. Here, dear. This will ease it.” Delicate, wrinkled hands passed a porcelain cup and saucer to calloused, young ones. The old hands were much more steady with the fragile, floral and gold-trimmed dishes.
“Um, thanks,” Pete nodded. He hesitated, watching the older woman as she poured another cup. A pungency of boiling herbs, dried flowers, and a million spices hovered in the air. As Jaycee had guided him to the tea bar and gift shop a short time earlier, the scent had greeted them long before they’d reached the cut-glass door. The corners of Pete's mouth twitched down as the aroma wafted to him on a trickle of steam.
“And for Jaycee…lavender and lemon balm,” the lady smiled, and handed another dainty set to a second pair of young hands, these vastly softer and smoother. “With just a touch of sesame,” she winked.
The tea café was nestled between two large boutiques at one end of the shopping center. A pastel jewel box, it specialized in custom blended, loose-leaf teas. There were a variety of these bagged and ready for purchase, as well as other tea-related paraphernalia, decorating cupboards and spotless glass display cases.
“Is your daughter working, today?” Jaycee asked as she reached for the cup and saucer.
“I believe she'll be here a little later, dear. I certainly hope so," Miss Mossie smiled, eyes twinkling. "She’s such a help--much more than these poor accouterments,” she said, lifting neatly manicured, but withered hands. “Oh, but nevermind that. Your tea will get cold.”
Jaycee sipped eagerly, closing her eyes with a satisfied hum as the warm liquid flowed inside her. Pete drank, also, taking his cue from the proprietor who'd poured herself a cup and sat to join them. There had been a steady flow of traffic, when they’d arrived, but now, all the tan, faux marble café tables were empty but theirs.
Pete flinched, grimacing as he swallowed, and made a small smacking sound with his lips.
Jaycee slanted him a look from the corners of her eyes and pursed her lips. Before he could respond, the woman with thinning, snowy-hair spoke again.
“Now, then. Tea is an excellent muse for solving what ails you.” Her jewel green eyes sparkled, untouched by the years that marked the rest of her. “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can find a way to help.”
“Not this,” Pete’s brows lowered over the bridge of his nose. “It’s done. There’s nothing anyone can do to change it.”
“I’m so sorry, dear. Why do you say that, though? Things in life are seldom over so quickly.” She spoke softly and patted his wrist. “Do have some more tea, and tell us about it.”
Unable to hide a slight frown, Pete glanced at the liquid in the thin porcelain cup. Unconsciously squaring his shoulders, he took a large swallow, sighing as he replaced the cup onto its saucer.
“Jaycee said she already told you about the robbery,” he shrugged.
“She did, and the stories she heard were terrible. Haunting, really.” She closed her eyes as she took a drink from her tea cup.
“Huh, yeah,” he said, followed by another gulp of tea. He tried to cover a twitch as the flavor hit him. “That's it: I…I just can’t get it out of my head. I’m not a paranoid kind-of guy, but…” He shook his head and sighed, again. “I just can’t get past it, you know? It’s like…like it’s still happening, all around me–”
He shut his lips abruptly and scowled at the café table where he rested his forearms.
“I’m sorry. I just…haven’t been able to talk about it, before.”
Jaycee squeezed his hand and bit her lower lip, sending him a sympathetic look.
“Miss Mossie’s a good listener,” she smiled, giving his hand another squeeze.
Miss Mossie lowered her eyes and smiled, nodding her appreciation. She looked back to Pete through the steam from her tea cup as she sipped and waited for him to continue.
“It’s not that no one’s asked. Jaycee keeps trying to help me, but,” he flattened his lips into a hard line, then absently took another large swallow of tea. He squinted as his tongue registered the drink, and swallowed quickly, tamping down a shudder. “But I saw–I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be talking about it in front of you.” He blinked, his brows drawn, confusion carved into his frown.
“That’s very kind of you, but don’t worry about me, dear. You don’t get to my age without seeing some ugly things. Go on, now. Remember. Let it out.”
Jaycee drank her tea and listened, noting the woman’s words for the first time. She’d conversed over a steaming cup with the owner, Nemosina Titus–Mossie, as she preferred–a dozen times. Jaycee always left later than she’d intended, but Miss Mossie took the time to sit with her, Jaycee pouring out her thoughts as Miss Mossie poured more tea. She couldn’t remember all she’d told the polished, elderly woman, but her mind and heart were lighter after they talked.
Pete swallowed with some difficulty, his lips working to hold back words that, for the first time in weeks, wouldn’t be stopped.
“I saw two men die. They were shot, both of them. One was just a guy in the store. He tried to jump one of the robbers, but the other guy–the robber–just turned as he stepped away and pulled the trigger. Point blank.” Pete’s face was pale and he struggled, forgetting how to swallow for a time.
“The man shot him, again, but he was already gone.” Pete’s hands shook as he drained his teacup, but he didn’t notice them or the tea’s flavor, this time. “Then the robbers got scared, so they turned on the rest of us. I was the only one working–”
“It was the night shift. About 2:30/3:00 in the morning, right?” Jaycee cut in.
“Yeah. So, the shooter pointed the gun at me, since I could get into the register. I did what he said–I saw what happened when you try to be brave. The cops came while he had the gun on me.”
Pete’s hands were shaking so bad he had to put the dishes down to keep from breaking them, but now the memories wouldn’t stop. He squeezed his eyes shut and shared what his senses poured back: every detail he’d seen, every breath and sniffle and choked sob he’d heard from the two other people who happened to be there, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He smelled gas, the ghosts of old cigarettes, the smoke from the gun. Pete breathed through his mouth, swearing he could smell the blood, too, and his stomach rolled audibly. There’d been sirens, a bullhorn, lights flashing through the long glass storefront. The robbers yelled, the cops yelled, one customer wailed into the cacophony.
“The one guy–robber, but not the shooter–tried to give himself up, but the shooter freaked out on him, started throwing his hands around as he yelled. The gun went off, again, and one of the customers collapsed. He didn’t faint, or anything–at least, I don’t think he did. His eyes were open. I think he was just in shock.”
Pete’s whole body was shaking, now. His breathing was erratic, and he nearly bit his tongue every few words. Yet, they wouldn’t stop.
Tears spilled from Jaycee’s wide eyes. Her lips slightly parted, she looked quickly from Pete to Miss Mossie, passing the older lady a silent question. Miss Mossie gave her the barest shake of her head as she refilled Pete’s cup. She nodded toward it once, then cast her eyes on Pete. Jaycee was reaching for the cup when Miss Mossie held up her index finger.
“The bullet hit the wall behind me. Just behind my head,” Pete resumed. “The cops heard the gun, and one of them shot through the window. It must have been an accident–I don’t know why they would’ve shot through the glass. Anyway, it hit the robber.
“It took him a minute to die and he cried.” Pete’s throat muscles waved upward and he swallowed, grimacing. “It wasn’t like on TV. It–” he swallowed, again, “it was bad…It was so bad.” His shudders were nearly convulsive, now, and tears streamed down his cheeks.
A sob escaped Jaycee’s mouth and she covered it with her hand, closing her eyes. With her other hand she squeezed Pete’s trembling one, but he didn’t seem to notice, his gaze fixed ahead, on events only he could see.
A tear slid down Miss Mossie’s cheek, streaking her makeup. She sent Jaycee a sad, but calm smile.
“That should be enough. I can help him now, dear.”
Jaycee’s forehead wrinkled and she sniffed in a very unlady-like way, swiping her nose with the backs of her fingers.
The question fell away as Miss Mossie closed her eyes and inhaled slowly and deeply. She opened her eyes and dipped her fingertips into her teacup, a few drops of the brown liquid falling onto the table as she lifted her hand. Her fingers swirled in the air over the table, listing toward Pete, who still sat, unseeing and quaking.
Jaycee’s eyes widened, again, as faint mists gathered into shimmering threads that spun with Miss Mossie’s fingers. She pulled the air toward her other hand, laying palm-side up on the table, and turned them over and over, winding them into a ball. She pulled more strands from the air, one thicker ribbon of haze coming from Pete’s parted mouth. Instantly, his shaking stopped and his entire posture relaxed, though he continued to stare at nothing in particular. Miss Mossie wound these last ribbons onto the ethereal, foggy sphere.
“What is that?” Jaycee asked, a shudder passing through her, as well.
“Memories. Not all of what he told us–he’ll need to keep some awareness for when he’s asked about those events in the future. But the worst, most painful parts… He doesn’t need these. He’ll have some peace, now.” Miss Mossie smiled kindly, then sipped her tea and sighed.
“The reason you see them, is that they are in the form of energy, now. Highly concentrated energy. It keeps me young,” she winked.
“Wait. You took his memories?” Jaycee asked, shaking her head…and continuing to shake.
“Why yes, dear. Only the worst ones. They’re painful and they hold loads of energy.”
“But…” Jaycee blinked, frowning, “but they’re Pete’s. What if he’s different without them? What if he’s supposed to have those? Look at him,” she lifted a jittery hand toward the catatonic young man seated beside her, rising panic in her voice. “Will he stay that way?”
“No, dear, of course not. No more than he drank, the tea’s effects will wear off within an hour. I don’t think he cared for this particular concoction,” she chuckled, lightly. “But it is an acquired taste, isn’t it, dear? I seem to recall that you didn’t like it at first, either. Not til I added the chamomile and sesame.”
“You’ve done this to me?” Her breathing was strained.
“Of course. Many times.” Miss Mossie laid a soft, wrinkled hand on Jaycee’s shivering one. “You’re always so much happier afterward.” Genuine warmth was in her sparkling eyes and calm smile.
“N-no,” Jaycee’s voice shook. Though her body vibrated violently, she was unable to move her limbs and struggled to speak. “D-don’t t-take my m…m-m…m-m-mem…”
She stared ahead into nothing in particular in front of her.
Once again, Miss Mossie used tea-dipped fingers to draw the new memory from the young woman and gather its energy into a shimmering, white ball of mist.
She stood and peeked into Jaycee’s cup. It was half-full.
“Well, that explains that,” Miss Mossie shook her head. “I must make sure she drinks it faster, next time.”
The old woman took one of the misty spheres and held it before her open lips. With a deep breath she drew the swirling fog into her mouth, closed it, and exhaled. She smiled as goosebumps spread throughout her thin, loose skin, fading into a firmer, tighter one. Her hair grew long and thick, and her back straightened as she inhaled the second orb.
When Pete and Jaycee blinked back to consciousness a little later, Miss Mossie was gone.
“I’m sorry,” Pete said, his cheeks reddened. “I think I fell asleep.”
“Well, you couldn’t have been asleep long or I would remember it,” Jaycee said, yawning. “So, do you feel any better after talking about things?”
“Yeah,” he said, his forehead wrinkled but he grinned. “Jeez…I don’t even remember what all I said; but yeah, I feel a lot better. Thank you, Jace.” He lifted her hand and kissed it.
“I’m glad,” she smiled and squeezed his hand. “I told you Miss Mossie was a good listener. There’s just something about her. I always feel better after I talk to her.”
“Where is she?” Pete looked around.
A slender young woman with long, sable hair and jewel-green eyes walked past them to wipe off the other tables.
“She was getting tired, so I took over for the rest of the day,” she winked.
“I think we both fell asleep,” Jaycee said, biting her lip. “I should be embarrassed, but I’ve done this before, here. There’s just something calming about your mom,” she sighed, smiling.
They paid for their tea and waved good-bye to the young woman who was so like Miss Mossie it couldn’t have been anyone but her daughter.
“Thank your mom for us, please!” Jaycee called as they walked through the door.
“Of course, dear,” the young woman said, eyes sparkling. “Come back soon!”