Amara waited with baited breath as her grandmother carefully lifted the steaming cup of tea to her lips, blew on it, then sipped. The lines on her grandmother’s mouth deepened as her lips screwed up, then became straight once more as the old woman sighed and shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Amara. It just wasn’t right. You’re sure you were truly feeling the calm flow through you?”
“I’m pretty sure I was,” Amara replied, rubbing her arm without meeting her grandmother’s eye. “Could I try it again, Mimi? Maybe I’ll get it—”
But before she could say anything more, they were interrupted by the tinkling of the shop bell.
“We’ll be right with you,” Mimi called. “Now,” she turned to her granddaughter, “I want you to pay extra special attention to how I prepare the tea for these customers. After they leave, you can try again.”
Amara nodded. “Yes, Mimi. I’ll be right out,” Mimi gave her a small smile that didn’t quite hide her sadness before heading out to the front of the shop. When she’d gone, Amara sighed and fell back gently against the giant sacks of loose tea piled against the back wall. Guilt tightened her stomach as she heard Mimi in her soft, high voice chatting with customers.
Transferring emotions to simple cups of tea was a peculiar talent, but her grandmother wielded it with all the ease of breathing. People from all over the state came to try the perfect calming cup of tea, and they were hardly ever disappointed. At least, until Amara had come to work for her.
The truth was, Amara hadn’t felt the calm flow through her as she prepared the tea. She tried, truly she did, but the calm never came.
Amara winced as she heard her grandmother sigh and the ting of one of the metal tins where some of the tea leaves were kept, and mentally berated herself again. She had to get her act together, for Mimi’s sake! She was depending on her to keep the family business running.
Her ears perked up as she heard the words: “my granddaughter,” coming from the front room. Amara shook her head and straightened up. She may not be entirely useful yet, but she could still be of some help. Her fingers pulled her apron strings tightly once before heading out to the front of the shop.
The afternoon was a rainy one, and as cozy as it made the tea shop feel, it also made it quite crowded. While the ceilings were stacked high with antique teapots and jars upon jars of dried teas, the shop itself was quite narrow, with only a small aisle for foot traffic. The lucky ones got a seat at the bar, while the others grabbed their tea only to head back out in the rain. As usual, Mimi made the tea and Amara doled it out, weaving her way around customers as her grandmother caught up with the regulars.
Customers began to trickle out as the rain let up, and Amara breathed a sigh of relief. It was wonderful that the tea shop was so popular, but it meant for tiring days.
One customer remained long after the sun had come out after the spell of rain. A woman who wore a blue rain coat. Though she kept her hood on, her crop of shoulder-length blonde hair peeked out, frizzy from the rain and humid shop. She sat at her stool, scrunching herself close to the countertop, clinging to her cup of tea as if it was a life preserver and she was close to drowning.
“Amara, would you please keep an eye on that customer? I’m going to take a short break,” Mimi came up behind Amara who had been wiping up some spills on the counter, opposite of where the woman sat. “And,” Mimi added in a hush, “whatever you do, please don’t make that woman any more tea. Should she need more, come and get me, yes?”
“Of—of course,” Amara said, another punch to the gut, but smiled through it. “Enjoy your break.”
After Mimi was in the back, Amara turned her focus back to cleaning. It was nearly time to close, and while neither she nor her grandmother strictly imposed the rule, she wondered if the day had been busy enough that it would be appropriate to at least let this customer know it was nearly time to clean up.
Amara walked up to her. “Excuse me, it’s—oh,” she nearly jumped as she realized the woman’s eyes were filled with tears and her cheeks already had streaks going down them. “Are you alright, ma’am?”
The woman looked up at Amara, eyes overflowing once more and shut them tightly, making even more tears leak out. She shook her head and grasped her cup of tea harder, showing the whites of her knuckles.
“No,” she choked out then sniffed, reaching into her coat pocket and dabbing at her nose. “I’m not.”
Amara leaned across the counter, almost putting her hand on the woman’s arm, but thought better. “I’m sorry,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do, I’d like to help.”
The woman shook her head again. “No, it’s my own fault. Just like everything is.”
“Everything?” Amara asked. “That doesn’t sound right. Everything can’t be your fault.”
“Well, it feels like it,” the woman gave a shuddering gasp. “And after today, my boss is gonna kill me. I’ll be lucky if I have a job after this.”
Amara nodded. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
The woman slowly spun her cup of tea on the smooth wood countertop. “I…I don’t know. I don’t want to take up your time.”
“Time? Why, my grandmother and I have all the time in the world for our customers,” Amara said, walking quickly over to the front of the shop and turning over the “Open” sign. She went back around the counter and planted herself in front of the woman.
“Please,” Amara said, hoping she sounded encouraging instead of patronizing. “I’d like to know what’s making you so upset. You did come here to feel calm, after all. If word got out that you left our shop feeling just as upset as you came in, our reputation would be at risk. Oh, and as long as we’re sharing emotional stuff, my name is Amara,” She winked at that last part, and the woman let out a watery chuckle.
“Carrie,” the woman said. “Thank you for offering to listen, but it’s such a long story, and—” before Carrie could continue, her phone rang. She jumped about a mile and her eyes grew so wide Amara could see just how red the veins had become. With a small squeak of panic, Carrie dove into the purse that dangled off her chair and quickly pulled out a phone.
Without hesitation, she answered it. “Hello?”
The voice on the other end was so loud and gruff that it made Amara wince. It was also a moment before she realized that Carrie hadn’t put the phone on speaker.
“Carrie, how did you get the count for the bedrooms and baths wrong again? The clients were furious when they saw the brochures! How do you keep making such stupid mistakes?”
A wave of mingled sympathy and anger washed over Amara. When she noticed Carrie’s hand shaking, an overwhelming urge to throw the phone at the wall overcame her.
“I’m sorry, Mike, I did my best—I promise I looked them over before I sent—”
“The cost of the brochures we have to keep printing is one thing, but if I keep getting clients that think my work is shoddy, I won’t stay in business! Sam never made these mistakes, and you’ve been here longer than him!”
Carrie turned away from the counter and Amara hurried off to busy herself elsewhere. She’d been so invested in what had happened that she didn’t realize she’d been listening in on a private conversation. But she couldn’t ignore the yelling, couldn’t ignore Carrie’s shaking hands or the new tears that poured down her face. Something alive coiled inside of her, and she knew exactly where to put it.
The steam from the kettle drowned out the worst of the yelling, but Amara could still hear the man Carrie was on the phone with. She took the lid off one of the dried teas, the jasmine pearls, and put four of them in the steaming basket.
A thought crossed her mind of Mimi shaking her head, but Amara quickly put it out of her mind. This was real. This emotion sweeping throughout her, pinballing around her soul, it needed a home, and it would find it in this cup of tea.
As Amara poured the hot water onto the dark green pearls, the emotion poured out of her. She had to steady herself against the counter—if she had been tired after that rush of customers, that exhaustion became doubled. She gritted her teeth and made her way over to Carrie, who was stammering an apology to the man on the other end of the phone.
“I don’t want apologies, I want you to fix this!”
Amara wordlessly pushed the cup of tea toward Carrie and motioned to her to drink it. Carrie’s bloodshot and watery eyes darted between the phone, Amara, and the cup of tea in front of them.
“If you were going to be this useless, then we never should have hired you!”
In a split second, several things happened at once. With one hand on the phone, Carrie’s other hand grasped Amara’s steaming cup of tea and sipped it.
Behind Amara came a gasp, and Amara whirled around to see Mimi coming in from the back room. Her eyes were wide as Carrie took a sip of her tea, and then her eyes grew wide. They were, however, dry for the first time since Amara had seen Carrie enter the shop.
“Mike,” Carrie’s voice carried clear and strong in the shop. “Despite the fact that I’ve been doing the work of all the assistants you let go, you’ve never once appreciated how much I’ve had to take on. I made mistakes, but there is no excuse for speaking to me that way. In fact, you’re never going to speak to me that way again, because I quit.”
There was one last loud exclamation that got cut off as Carrie ended the call and turned her phone off. All three women stood stock still in the shop, the sudden silence ringing in their ears.
Carrie turned to Amara and smiled. “I can’t believe I just did that! Thank you, Amara!”
Amara could have collapsed on the spot. “Me?” She pointed to herself. Carrie nodded.
“I’ve been wanting to quit for months, but I haven’t had the courage to do it. Is that what you put in my tea? Courage?”
“I…I think I did, yeah,” Amara smiled then turned to Mimi who looked flabbergasted. “I’m sorry, Mimi, I didn’t mean to—” but before she could finish, Mimi pulled her into a tight hug.
“Dear girl, it’s not calm that you bestow, it’s courage!” She pulled away and held Amara at an arm’s length as if truly seeing her now. “Looks like you’ve found your gift after all.”
Amara looked down at her hands and then at the still steaming cup of tea next to Carrie. So that was what it was, that warm flame swirling around in her soul as she could see someone in trouble right in front of her. Courage.
Carrie sighed and took another sip. “Well, since I’m going to be going to interviews soon, do you think I could order one to go for tomorrow?”
Amara smiled and nodded. “Yes. I can definitely do that.”