Tea Times Three: The Lost Chapters #1

After getting feedback from a friend in my critique group I cut the first three chapters of Tea Times Three! But I thought it would be fun to post them here!

Here is the former  Chapter 1 of Tea Times Three

Chapter 1

Opening Soon

At 5:00a.m. the town of Midswich, Maine was silent.  One person strode through the pre-dawn twilight. Geoffrey Callister kept the tradition of opening Callister’s Dry Goods himself every morning, same as his father and grandfather.

Geoffrey liked the hours of quiet he had to himself and he liked seeing Midswich wake up. The cobbled streets slowly filling with locals he knew on sight and tourists during the summer.

He turned the key in the front door and looked around. A distant engine rumbled a few streets away. He nodded and checked his wristwatch. Ten after five, right on time.

Rob Harris’  van bounced along the main street. Harris delivered magazines and newspapers  to the small towns in the area. Every morning he brought the two local and one national newspaper the grocery store stocked. A couple times a month magazines came in to stock the  rack in the Dry Goods.

Geoffrey pocketed the key and turned just as the van pulled up. He waved hello to Rob who gave him a stoic nod in return.

The double doors at the back of the van popped open and  Rob’s son and assistant Jake  leapt out with athletic ease.  Geoffrey saw his name on the sports page from time to time.

“Morning, Jake,” Geoffrey said.

“Morning, Mr. Callister.” Jake gave him a friendly grin and started unloading the bundles of newspapers.

Jake paused as he was unloading the New York Times, staring at something across the street.

“So, who’s re-opening the teashop?”

Callister frowned. The Teas Please had closed three years ago when Mrs. Sutton had died at the age of eighty eight. A dusty “For Sale” sign had been in the window ever since. Unfortunately the economy went bad before anyone rented it and the empty shop was a bit of a downtown eyesore.

“The teashop? No one,” Geoffrey said.

Jake pointed across the cobbled street. The shop, like everything else in Midswich, was old or designed to look that way. Midswich had been an old Puritan settlement. Through good luck and later, good city planning, the town still had a dozen historic buildings  from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The town fathers, realizing that there was little industry to be had, settled on a scheme to lure in tourists. Midswich now rivaled any Cotswold village for quaintness and charm. The  buildings were built in mandatory Tudor style with white walls, dark wood beams and in a few over exuberant cases, thatched roofs.

The plan worked and even now tourists and locals alike flocked to “Little Britain”.

Geoffrey frowned at the tea shop’s overnight transformation.. The windows were clean and covered with plain brown paper to keep out gawkers. Brand new green and gold striped awnings hung above the windows and the window boxes were newly planted with a profusion of red geraniums, multi-colored columbine, and stalks of ginger snaps even though it was  too early for anything other than crocuses. A sign in the window read “Opening Soon”.

A chill slithered down Geoffrey’s spine and he felt his graying brown hair prickle.  None of those things, the sign, the awnings, the flowers should have been there. Not without magical assistance.

“That wasn’t there yesterday,” stammered Geoffrey.

“Teashops don’t just sprout up overnight,” Jake said.

Geoffrey glared at Jake who looked at him with  mild patience .

“Not the teashop,” Geoffrey continued. “The ‘Opening Soon’ sign and the paper on the windows.” He trailed off at a loss for words. A cold twist of discomfort wrapped around his gut. The only explanation that made sense was one that seemed the most far-fetched.

“New owners must’ve done that overnight.” Jake climbed back into the van.

“Yeah, I suppose,” Geoffrey said, voice faint. Which meant the new owners were the kind of people who fled small towns, not moved in to them.

“See ya.” Jake waved out the back of the van as Rob did a u-turn.

 

There couldn’t be new tenants. Geoffrey knew Dan Harding head of the Midswich Chamber of Commerce personally. If anyone had rented the teashop, he would have heard about it. Midswich had only nine hundred permanent residents and  wasn’t  a town big on keeping secrets. Careful to seem nonchalant Geoffrey looked up and down Stratford Avenue. The street was empty. The Dry Goods was the first business to open in the morning and one of the last to close at night. Nothing else downtown opened until nine at least and Geoffrey’s first customers wouldn’t start arriving until six.

He hurried across the street. Geoffrey gripped the doorknobs of the teashop. He turned it and met with resistance. He gave the door a good shaking to make sure it wasn’t an illusion.

“Locked,” he mumbled. Of course it was locked. Even when the shop was empty the town’s realtor had kept it locked. Geoffrey wasn’t entirely sure what he’d been expecting, an invitation.    A cold morning breeze swept down the street and Geoffrey shivered. He sprinted back across  to his grocery store and the familiarity of his opening routine.

2

The Midswich lunch rush centered on three downtown establishments. The local bar designed to look like a British pub, called Fiddler’s Moon. The town’s sole sit-down restaurant, Rosa’s Mexican Kitchen, and the sandwich counter at Callister’s Dry Goods.

Rumor of the teashop’s reopening spread to every resident by the improbable speed only a small town with wi-fi could achieve. Matilda Hartwell guessed that by no later than 5:25 a.m. or as soon as Geoffrey could get on the phone to his wife the entire town had known.

Any news was big news in Midswich and everyone was ablaze with speculation. Like the rest of those crowding the wood beamed interior of the Dry Goods Matilda had come to get the story from the horse’s mouth. Geoffrey Callister basked in the glow of local interest while he rang up tiny sales of single cans of soup or candy bars, which everyone was using as an excuse to talk to him. Matilda ruefully noted the single pack of gum in her had. Behind her in line her boyfriend, Hugh, fiddled with his token purchase, a small espresso.

Matilda’s turn at the register came and she put down her pack of gum.

“I hear you noticed the teashop this morning,” Matilda said as she pretended to dig for a couple dollars in her purse.

Geoffrey grinned broadly,  pleased with another chance to tell his tale.

“Yeah, it was the strangest thing. I was up this morning and noticed the ‘Opening Soon’ sign. Just like magic…”, he added with a whisper.

Hugh stepped up to the counter and slipped arm around Matilda’s waist.

“I hope it’s a Starbucks. They make a great mocha frappicino.” He put his espresso down next to the gum. “Which I would kill for,” he added under his breath.

Geoffrey lost the smile. He had put in three professional grade coffee makers four years ago but was too cheap to hire a barista. The coffee now had the acid flavor of something found at a bad gas station.

“Hugh,” Matilda wished he’d be nicer. He had been, at least for awhile, but lately Hugh had been more and more sarcastic.

“Bite your tongue, Hugh,” cracked a sharp voice behind Hugh. A patent leather purse smacked his arm to emphasize the point.

“Ms. Barton.” Hugh smiled through gritted teeth.

Matilda grinned. Mrs. Barton had taught  third grade since the Stone Age and most of the town had once had her as a teacher. At age seventy-eight, she was still thin and wiry. With posture that put lampposts to shame..

“Major corporations are destroying small town businesses,” Mrs. Barton said.

“I think the sign would say if it was a Starbucks,” Geoffrey put in. “Besides, I think something a little more…supernatural, is going on.”

“You think so?” Matilda handed over the money for the gum.

“That would never happen, not in this town,” Ms. Barton sounded disappointed.

“I heard it’s a retired millionaire from Silicon Valley,” Matilda said.

Hugh snorted and laughed, “That’s about as likely as Geoffrey’s…supernatural idea.”

Matilda flushed, embarrassed and angered by Hugh’s condescension. He always did this, laughed off every suggestion she made. “Well at least you won’t get fat on frappicinos.”

Geoffrey snickered and Hugh looked hurt. She snatched her gum off the counter and marched out, the bells over the door ringing loudly. Outside in the sunshine and cool spring breeze, she felt like she could breathe again. Matilda inhaled deeply and tried to regret her words. He’d been extra special sarcastic the last six months. What was an occasional joke became a daily one man show of mean-spirits.

The door to Callister’s opened and Hugh came out.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. He poured the espresso into a planter by the door.

“Not everything I say is stupid.”

“No one said that.”

“You laughed at me.”

“Come on I was just kidding” Hugh gave her his Winning Smile. That’s what Matilda called it. He flashed his white veneers and every problem he had just went away.

It might be possible to be too handsome, she thought, a sour taste coating the back of her throat. Square jaw, sable hair with just the right amount of wave in it. Hugh spent more time in the bathroom than she did.  Matilda felt like she was supposed to feel grateful to Hugh. She put more effort into her appearance now than when they’d been dating. She’d switched from glasses to colored contacts to make her eyes greener. Every morning she got up extra early to curl her strawberry-blond hair. Dutifully, she wore heavy-duty sunscreen to ward off freckles and  put in hours at the gym.

They’d dated for a year and a half before moving in with each other and at this point Matilda couldn’t remember if it’d been her idea or her parent’s. She wasn’t even sure who she was trying to please anymore but she knew it wasn’t herself. The problem was she remembered being happy with Hugh. He was fun and adventurous. They used to go on weekend trips to New York all the time. Now it took all her effort just to maintain.

Matilda checked her watch. “I gotta get to work.” She didn’t have to be at Bairly Hair for another half an hour.

She started leaving without even a good-bye when Hugh grabbed her and spun her around.

“Kiss, kiss,” he said and gave her two quick pecks on the lips.

Matilda felt irritated and  barely returned his kisses. She took off down Stratford heading for the town square.

 

 

3

 

 

Geoffrey made the ten-minute walk from his house to the Dry Goods in record time. He left early that  morning while his wife Claire was still sound asleep. Usually she woke up long enough for a good-bye kiss  but this morning she grunted something about the time and rolled over.

Geoffrey was anxious to find out if any changes had been made to the teashop overnight. Perhaps even meet the new owners. He had to admit to a little shiver of fear as well.

The Midswich rumor mill was overheating. Betty Rimbaldi, sole realtor and holder of the lease on the teashop, at first denied it had been sold. Later, she said she had dug up the paperwork for the shop and found signed copies of deeds handing the shop to new owners. The name on the deeds was a lawyer in Boston  who, when she’d checked with him, didn’t know anything about a teashop in another state.

The obvious conclusion was readily becoming the explanation no one wanted.  Still, how threatening could a teashop really be? Even if the proprietor wasn’t the sort of person small towns usually welcomed.

Geoffrey turned onto Stratford and saw he wasn’t the first one up. Penelope Owens stood in front of the grocery store staring across the street at the teashop as if she could burn a hole through it with her mind. Geoffrey could see her pajamas sticking out of her  blue bathrobe, it’s appliqué silver space ships bright even in the pre-dawn indigo. She hadn’t even bothered to put on shoes. At least the slippers matched the robe.. Her excuse for being out so early in her pjs was at the end of a leash. Penelope’s miniscule rat of a Chihuahua, Prince Albert, sat on the sidewalk at her feet.

“Morning, Mrs. Owens,” Geoffrey said. He wondered if she was all right. His grandfather had gone loopy at the end of his life, running around town in his underwear, and Penelope was the town guess for next in line to the loony bin.

Penelope turned to Geoffrey with a deep frown wrinkling her mouth.

“There’s something wrong with that teashop.” She fiddled with the cross she wore around her neck.

“I don’t know about that,” Geoffrey said. He had just been trying to talk himself out of the very same thought. Somehow the idea sounded worse coming from Mrs. Owens.

He looked across the street at the offending shop and froze. The sign in the window now read “Opening Very Soon”. He gave a nervous high-pitched laugh and choked it off with a cough.

“So, it’s not a Silicon Valley Millionaire?”

Penelope squinted at him. “I guess I was wrong,” she said slowly.

Geoffrey’s eyes swiveled back to the shop. “Reverend Austin knows about this, right?”

Geoffrey was not a religious man. He hadn’t set foot in a church since his wedding, but it didn’t hurt to have all contingencies planned for.

“He knows,” Mrs. Owens said, “And he’s ready for whoever it may be.”

The image of Reverend Austin readying pitch forks and torches in his skin tight running clothes rose in Geoffrey’s mind. He shook it off but only with effort. There must be a rational explanation. Betty Rimbaldi was a drunk. She sold the teashop and didn’t remember. He held onto that perfectly reasonable thought satisfied with the idea. He liked to quit while he was ahead.

Mrs. Owens gently shook the leash in her hand and Prince Albert yawned. The little dog shook himself off and rose to his full height of eight inches.

“Keep an eye out for anything unnatural, Callister,” Penelope said as she shuffled off, slippers making a flip-flop noise as she went.

Geoffrey nodded.

 

 

4

 

At three o’clock, the spring weather turned nasty. Dark clouds, grey and heavy, lumbered in from the Atlantic only twenty miles away. The promise of rain kept everyone hustling to finish their business in order to be home before the skies finally opened.

Reverend Oscar Austin sat alone on the patio of Rosa’s Mexican Kitchen. Like every other building in town, the restaurant looked like a transplant from the English countryside. The incongruous cuisine made it ironic in a way only America can achieve. The patio had a low stonewall and inside there were a half-dozen tables with wide umbrellas to provide shade.

Reverend Austin had a diagonal view of the questionable  teashop. His parishioners had all called yesterday to inform him that something strange was going on. All 150 of them. After the first twenty-five calls he put the answering machine on. No doubt the machine had already reached capacity. This morning he was forced to shut the ringer off as well just to get some sleep.

“Afternoon, Reverend Austin.” The waitress, Rosa’s second-oldest daughter, Costanza, came out on the patio with a menu and a tray of chips and salsa.

“Can I tempt you into reading the menu today?” she asked.

“No, thank you. I will have water and a small side salad, no dressing.”

Costanza sighed heavily, “So, no chips or salsa either?”

“Salsa yes, chips no. Too much saturated fat.” He gave her a thin smile.

“Fine, whatever,” Costanza said and put the chips back on her tray, leaving the salsa. Her long black pony tail whipped around in disdain. Costanza turned back when she reached the patio doors.

“Sure you won’t  come inside at least?”

“No, thank you,” Reverend Austin said.

The wind picked up Costanza’s parting words, a faint string of Spanish punctuated by the word , “Manerexic.”

Austin wasn’t sure whether to feel insulted or praised. He watched what he ate, jogged five miles a day, and at forty seven was in the best shape of his life. Not everyone saw it that way though. He drew the occasional remarks about being a health food nut and more than one old church lady had tried to fatten him up. Their proffered cakes and pies  were given away the Baptist mission.

A few minutes later, Costanza returned with a small bowl of salad, a glass of water. Reverend Austin looked over the greens with approval. Instead of the usual precut bags of iceberg lettuce, Rosa’s used organic lettuces like butter lettuce, arugula and endive. Rosa tried to buy as much as she could from local growers. The freshness of her food was one thing that set Rosa’s apart from Fiddler’s Moon and even the other restaurants in nearby towns.

“You know, mom’s working on a grilled chicken salad under two hundred  calories”, Costanza said. She looked faintly disapproving of the Reverend’s meager meal. “Something even you will order.”

“Well, let me know when it’s ready,” he said as he poured the freshly made salsa over the salad.

Costanza looked back up at the gathering clouds, which seemed darker and wetter that they had been a few minutes before.

“Come inside if it starts to rain. These umbrellas are just for sun.”

Austin nodded and took a forkful of salad. Costanza left him to contemplate the view.

There was something undeniably odd about the soon to open teashop. The fact that no one knew who bought it, for one. Betty Rimbaldi swore on her one-year sobriety chip she didn’t know the new owners and hadn’t shown the shop to anyone in two years. Second, the town council, the Chamber of Commerce, all of them were ignorant. The swiftness with which changes had been made, overnight, seemed almost…magical.

Reverend Austin sipped his ice water as he drank in the gossip of the passersby. A half-hour on the patio and no doubt he’d hear every theory the fevered imaginations of the villagers could concoct.

Four teenagers, two boys and two girls, dressed uniformly in black,  passed by on the way home from school.  Midswich’s entire goth contingent led by Rosa’s daughter Mary-Alice.

“You don’t think it’s true, do you?” Morris asked.

“Why would Satanists open a tea shop? That doesn’t even make sense.” Tyler Andrews said. Spiked hair not withstanding he was the more sensible.

“Well, they could, I dunno, kill people or something.” Morris insisted.

“God, will you just shut up.” Mary-Alice said. She went by Alyss, or so Austin had heard. Probably thought it sounded edgy. Austin gave her a mild smile as she passed and she scowled at him over her shoulder.

“Seriously.” Caroline said. She and Tyler were members of his own congregation and he was waiting for them to grow out of their goth phase.

They passed but the debate went on.

So far, Austin had yet to weigh in. He had his suspicions but had yet to voice them. As reverend of the Methodist church his job was to keep a cool head, not fan the flames of speculation. All the church leaders in town were keeping quiet until it opened.

The first fat, spring raindrops fell with audible plops onto the umbrella and pavement as Reverend Austin finished his salad.

And the heavens wept he thought and chuckled dryly. He went inside to pay his bill.

 

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