Chapter 31

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"What are you doing?" Amanda says the following morning, jerking her arm free from the hand gripping her elbow. She didn't get more than a few feet away from her apartment door before someone reached out from behind a tree, detouring her normal route to the university.

The sun wasn't yet up when Zandra took her position behind the tree, watching and waiting for Amanda to leave. Never mind calling ahead of time. Some things are too important for a heads up.

"We need to talk," Zandra says, reattaching her grip to Amanda and steering her back toward the apartment.

"But I have class," Amanda says as Zandra opens the apartment door.

"Classy people don't hang out at dope houses with assholes who are trying to take me out," Zandra says.

Amanda looks confused, but she goes along with her anyway. Looking Zandra up and down, she says, "Did...did he do that to you?"

Even after cleaning herself up, there's no mistaking Zandra's injuries for a bad hair day. "Would I be here if he didn't?," she says.

Zandra checks every room inside Amanda's apartment to make sure they're alone. Amanda clutches her tote in the kitchen, keeping her face out of view while Zandra invades every shred of her privacy.

"This roommate of yours never seems to be around," Zandra says finally. "She off at class?"

Amanda nods, keeping her eyes on the floor. Zandra doesn't bother trying to meet them. She glances at the clock instead. It's before 7 a.m. Zandra waited by the door since 5 and only saw young men head off to class. Amanda said before that her roommate is female.

If she even has a roommate. But that's not why I'm here.

"Wait. Are you crying?" Zandra says.

Amanda nods again, this time her face revealing wet cheeks. "It's just too much," she says.

"What's too much?"

"All of this. I don't want to do this anymore. I just want to go to school, get a job, live a normal life," Amanda says. "I never should've taken your money in the first place."

Zandra rolls her eyes. "Hate to break it to you, sweetie, but you taking money for something you don't want to do is living a normal life. It's called a job. If you're lucky, you'll get one when you graduate."

"If I graduate. I have a test this morning," Amanda says, sniffing. She looks up at Zandra, eyes clear as smog. "Why are you so mean to me?"

You're confusing assertiveness with being aggressive. Kids these days, they're so fragile. You'll thank me later for the kick the in the ass, Amanda.

Zandra ignores the question, instead fetching a teapot and filling it with water. After setting it on the stove and turning on a burner, she turns to Amanda and says, "What kind of mean person comes over and makes you a cup of tea?"

"Tea? You came over here for tea?" Amanda says. She flips off the burner. "I'm going back to school."

"Not just tea, but a cup of comfort, in a way," Zandra says. She pulls out a bag of finely ground, loose leaf tea from one of the deep pockets in her purple gown. The label on the bag indicates that it's a special blend grown specifically for tasseomancy, or the art of reading tea leaves. While the claim is debatable, their effect on the price tag is not. Zandra sells the tea at Sneak Peek for triple the cost of identical leaves at the grocery store.

"Fuck you, Zandra," Amanda says, pushing her way out of the kitchen and toward the door.

Zandra turns the burner back on. "I wouldn't be so quick to turn your back to someone who knows all about your little trips to the dope house. The police will have lots to ask you about," she says, lying.

Amanda stops, looks up to the ceiling and wipes away a tear. Turning to Zandra, she says, "If I drink this stupid tea with you, can I go to class?"

"Of course," Zandra says. "But I came here not just to make you tea, but to show you how bright your future is going to be. Maybe it will give you some perspective on where you're headed. You're lost, child. A tea reading can give you the peace you need to persevere."

Now it's Amanda's turn to roll her eyes. "Fine."

After it's ready, Zandra pours the hot tea into mugs she brought with her from Sneak Peek. They sip in silence, the only small talk made by the uncomfortable conversations between their creaking chairs in the dining area. The tea tastes like a cross between Earl Grey and the plastic packaging the leaves came in. Not everyone falls for Zandra's price gouging.

"So how does this work?" Amanda says after she finishes drinking.

"Water, especially hot water because of the increased molecular vibration, is a conduit for spiritual energies, as any ghost hunter will tell you. But you don't have to be dead in order for your energy to be drawn into the water, " Zandra says and gently takes the mug from Amanda's hands. "The way the tea leaves settle in the bottom of the mug is like your energy's fingerprint. Because the patterns the tea leaves make are unique to you, they allow an intuitive person, such as myself, to divine certain knowledge about yourself."

Translation: I stare at some backwash and tell you what I want you to hear.

Were Amanda a paying client, Zandra would continue by explaining the different shapes the tea leaves make. The "science" of tasseography uses a set encyclopedia of symbols and meanings. An anchor or elephant shape might mean good luck and success. Suns, moons, birds and triangles also indicate good fortune. An owl, apparently not enough of a bird, is a bad omen. Hearts, stars, horseshoes, clovers and blue moons also bring their own meanings, although they might indicate the presence of a certain brand of breakfast cereal.

But what's inside Amanda's mug is much more direct than the usual psychobabble. In fact, it's written in English.

Zandra gasps and motions for Amanda to come in for a closer look. Spelled out in tiny yet clearly visible letters are two words.

Help me.

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