Chapter 2 - Stiff Competition
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, I packed my meager possessions into the ten-year-old pickup truck—the only thing I got from the divorce—for the drive north to Trinity County. I left the door key in the mail slot for my apartment unit.
I had called my landlord and given notice yesterday, and he was more than happy to have me move out. He had family coming over from Vietnam who needed housing. If I was looking for another sign this phase of my life was over, this was it.
I ignored the tightness in my chest, focusing on the curvy mountain road. The Woods family had adopted me from a Chinese orphanage when I was a one-year-old. Even with all the tragedies in my life, I had known nothing but love from my adopted family.
I got to town by nine in the morning and made my way slowly through the historic Old Town area. In the twenty years that I had lived in the Bay Area, my hometown had acquired two additional stoplights—for a total of four stoplights—and a gazillion signs advertising recreational activities around Trinity Lake.
In Old Town, the buildings mostly had board and batten siding with false fronts with the occasional cottage or craftsman house thrown in to break up the monotony. The Queen Anne mansion that used to belong to the richest family in the county was now a bed-and-breakfast inn, and the huge yard converted into a community park. In the town square was an ancient watermill that now doubled as a visitor center.
Gone were the general and hardware stores of my youth. The shops were an assortment of antique shops and gift shops selling knickknacks, souvenirs, and handmade soaps and lotions from locally grown herbs. They had even built a boardwalk, which doubled as the sidewalk, with wood benches for seating along Main Street to give it a more old-time vibe. When did Mirror Falls become a tourist town?
And even stranger, when did the townsfolk pay for fancy coffee and tea? Mirror Falls was a mountain town where the residents still hunted for their meat and made fun of city yuppies who liked their frou-frou coffee. Or at least they did when I’d left town.
According to my brother, Aunt Coco sunk the rest of her retirement money into a tea shop. At her age! Who gave her the ridiculous idea she needed the stress of running a small business?
If I counted the cafe in the organic co-op supermarket—I couldn’t believe there was one in town—there were a total of three coffee shops. And one of them, Fiona’s Fine Coffees and Teas, was probably the tea shop’s biggest competitor. Even the ice cream parlor sold iced teas. How was Aunt Coco’s tea shop supposed to compete with the established businesses? Maybe she could convert it to a tea room, but that was even riskier and more expensive, and none of us had any restaurant experience. Geez, what a mess.
Following my older brother’s directions in his text message, I pulled up next to a rundown building on the edge of Main Street. The false-front building had been vacant for years and reportedly haunted, which was how my aunt could afford the purchase. According to Josh, every previous business at this location had closed within the first year. If I were superstitious, I would say this place had bad juju.
As I stared over the hood of my pickup truck and at the shop windows, my heart sank. What did I know about remodeling or running a small business? I was a former teacher who had given up my career after marriage to raise a family that never materialized. I didn’t consider myself a failure, but I hadn’t achieved much either. The most I could say was that I’d survived.
The tea shop was scheduled to open in a month, right before the Old Town Fall Festival. If all the stars aligned, it would bring in a lot of foot traffic and holiday shopping—and my aunt could recoup some of her money.
I took a deep breath, got out of the truck, and checked my brother’s text message again. I had gotten here in time for the lumber delivery. With Josh out of town, Aunt Coco in the hospital, and the contractor at another job site, it was up to me to make sure the delivery person didn’t dump the lumber at an inconvenient location.
The delivery person should be here within the next ten minutes. Even though I knew no one was inside the tea shop, I tried the door handle anyway. The door handle turned, and I swung open the door. And this was why someone needed to be here to take care of things. Even though there probably wasn’t anything of value, a vandal could make a mess, and it would cost more money for the repairs.
Or did someone break in? My pulse jumped at the thought. Other than the tools the contractor had left behind, there was nothing of value in the tea shop. A faint noise came from the back of the building. I glanced around and grabbed the hammer from the toolbox.
Should I call out? But the intruder might escape through the back door. Or should I try to sneak up on him and take him down? Even as this thought crossed my mind, I felt silly for thinking about it. At five foot two inches and slightly heavier than a wet towel—thanks to all the weight I’d lost from the stress of the divorce—the only thing I could take down might be a squawking chicken.
I bit my lower lip, preparing to call out.
“I don’t need to steal your baker,” Aunt Coco said. “I’ve already got someone lined up for the job.”
I cocked my ear toward the rear of the shop. What was my aunt doing here? Shouldn’t she be at the hospital recovering from her surgery? A sudden thought hit me, and I narrowed my eyes in annoyance. The broken hip was another ploy to get me to come home. My aunt was still a wily old fox, and I had been outmaneuvered.
“My cashier saw you talking to Chrissy Lane,” an unfamiliar voice said. The person spoke in a high-pitched tone that grated like fingernails on a chalkboard. She was either excited or very angry.
Aunt Coco laughed. “I only asked where she went for culinary school. It’s no crime to make small talk.”
I stepped through the front room and went into the kitchen. From there, on the right, was a small room. It probably was an office or storage space. Sure enough, I found Aunt Coco behind her desk, leaning back in her chair, and a woman towered over her on the other side.
The stranger was about my age—in her mid-forties—with a pinched, triangular face. Her gray eyes glared at my aunt, and her hands were curled into fists. She placed both hands on top of the desk and leaned into my aunt’s personal space. This power play rubbed me the wrong way. This woman wasn’t a happy camper, and she wasn’t afraid to use her greater height and strength to intimidate an elderly person.
“Stay away from my staff,” the woman said through gritted teeth.
Aunt Coco straightened to her full five feet. “If you’d do right by your staff, you wouldn’t have to worry about them jumping ship.”
The woman’s face grew even redder, and a vein started to throb on the side of her forehead. At the rate things were going, the woman might have a heart attack or a stroke. Time to break the tension.
I knocked on the doorframe. “Surprise, surprise. I’m back.”
The two women swiveled their heads to stare at me. Aunt Coco blinked, and a guilty expression crossed her face. I gave her a slight shake of my head. She was so busted.
The other woman straightened, removing her hands from the desk. She visibly smoothed out the angry lines on her forehead and regarded me with fake calm. The throbbing vein on the side of her head gave away her true feelings. Maybe she was afraid there would be a witness.
“Aunt Coco, I thought you were in the hospital,” I said. While I would forgive my aunt for anything, it didn’t mean I would let it slide. This was as good a time as any to throw a small fit.
People usually didn’t want to stick around for family arguments. And now that there were the two of us, maybe this would shift the power in the room, and the angry woman would leave before we needed to call the cops.
I could see the woman studying me from the corner of my eye. Her gaze swiveled back and forth between me and Aunt Coco. Her eyes no longer flashed with anger, but there was a guarded expression on her face. Yep, she was definitely afraid of having a witness.
Hurling one final scowl at my aunt, the woman spun on her heels and stalked out of the room. I took a step back to avoid getting shoved out of the way. My aunt opened her mouth, and I placed a finger to my lips, hushing her. I glanced over my shoulder and listened. I didn’t know what was going on here, but I wasn’t letting my guard down yet. The angry woman might sneak up behind me or listen in on our conversation.
The front door slammed shut, rattling the office door. I exhaled, and the tension left my shoulders. My forearm ached, and I glanced down to see that I was clutching the hammer in my gloved hand. Oh no. Maybe this was why the woman had backed down.
Aunt Coco jumped out of her chair and wrapped me in a warm hug. Her hand removed the hammer, and she set it down on her desk.
I crossed my arms and gave my aunt a deadpan expression. “Did you think I was going to use it on you?”
“No, but it never hurts to close that window of possibility,” Aunt Coco said, giving me a sheepish grin. She spread her arms out again. “Cedar Bear, welcome home, baby girl.”
And the next thing I knew, I was wrapped up in another tight hug. My aunt’s silver hair tickled my nose. I pulled away from the hug.
Blinking back the tears in my eyes, I stepped back to put distance between us. I was supposed to be upset at my aunt’s big fat lie. She wasn’t duping me with her over-the-top motherly act, though I knew deep down it wasn’t completely an act. I was the apple of my aunt’s eye—standing above the shoulders of her sons.
I checked out my aunt from head to toe. I hadn’t seen much of her in the last year, wrapped up as I was in my personal crisis.
For as long as I could remember, my aunt had been round and squishy, like a gigantic body pillow. Even her face and upside-down bowl haircut was round, though in recent years she had acquired the little old lady perm for her thinning hair. She used to have cat-eye framed glasses, but her cataract surgery a few years ago gave her perfect sight, which I was jealous of since everything was a blur without my contacts or glasses. My greatest fear was being stranded somewhere without my glasses.
“You are looking mighty perky for someone who supposedly has a broken hip,” I said.
Aunt Coco shrugged, her hands up in the air like she had no clue why I would be upset. “I never said I had a broken hip. There must be some kind of miscommunication here.”
“Josh said that you said—”
“Cedar Bear, are you sure Josh spoke to me?”
The question was innocent enough, but I could hear the fine print in it. The technicality that covered the shades of gray. My aunt might have been a lawyer in a previous life.
I reviewed the conversation I had with my brother. She was right. He said her neighbor called him after Aunt Coco fell. It was her neighbor who said my aunt broke her hip and went through surgery. Since Josh was at a conference, he didn’t have time to follow up. And her doctor wouldn’t have told him anything because of privacy laws.
“Why did your neighbor think you have a broken hip?” I blurted out.
Aunt Coco waved her hand dismissively. “Babcia is hard of hearing—though she would never admit it. She misses half of the conversation and fills in the blanks with whatever pops into her head.”
I gaped at my aunt. I’d upended my life because someone liked to fill in the blanks like this was a Mad Libs story. “How come you didn’t stop Babcia from calling Josh?”
Aunt Coco stared at me like I was the village idiot. “What makes you think I have any control over Babcia? She knows everyone in town and talks to whoever she wants.”
I rubbed my temples. Done was done. One way or the other, I was back in town. “Who was that angry woman? And what is going on between the two of you?”
Before Aunt Coco got a chance to answer my questions, a beeping sound filled the air. She cocked her head, listening intently, and her eyes widened. “The delivery truck!” She brushed past me and hastened to the front door.
My heart sank. Oh no. My whole purpose for waking at the crack of dawn was to get to town to meet the delivery truck. I spun on my heels and darted after my aunt. Something in front of the store clunked and screeched like some kind of air pressure was released.
Outside the shop, on the edge of the boardwalk, Aunt Coco waved a hand at the back of the delivery truck. “You can’t just leave the lumber here.”
A hand stuck out of the delivery truck, waving back at her. “Sorry, lady. I called the phone number on the invoice, but no one picked up.” The truck shifted into gear. “I have to get to my next stop.”
“We’re not supposed to block the parking spots,” Aunt Coco said, gesturing at the pile of lumber laid out across three painted lines on the street.
I heard a shuffling noise from behind me and turned to find the angry woman from earlier standing in front of a doorway. I glanced at the lettering on the window—Fiona’s Fine Coffees and Teas. The angry woman was a business rival.
“I’m calling code enforcement,” Fiona said. “And then I am calling the cops. Your niece can’t go around threatening law-abiding citizens with a hammer.”
Aunt Coco placed both hands on her hips. She was in battle mode. “Now hold up—”
Fiona stormed back into the coffee shop and slammed the door shut, ending the conversation like a petulant child.
I groaned inwardly. Maybe code enforcement and the cops were reasonable people. What if I got detained for my role in what looked to be a long-standing feud?
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