Authors: Anne R. Tan
A New Friend
© 2016 by Anne R. Tan
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Anne R. Tan
Author’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
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o my mom
for being wonderful without even trying
up the strap of her push-up bra—part of a fancy set she’d gotten from her grandma for her birthday—to keep from snapping her fingers at the man’s face so he could stay with her in the conversation. It would be rude, but the receptionist at the day spa kept returning to the same point—her gift certificate wasn’t in their system.
She’d been here for thirty minutes trying to make an appointment. If this was their customer service, imagine what they’d do to her hair. Did she really need a fancy hairdo this badly? But if she rejected this gift certificate, her best friend, Eden, might interpret it as a rejection of her. Her friend probably went without gas in her car for a week to gift Raina this treat.
It didn’t help that Raina was getting a neck cramp from looking at the tall young man in black skinny jeans and a fitted sateen shirt. His smooth olive skin and the lock of brown hair across his forehead gave him an exotic foreign air, except she didn’t like his bleary eyes and the loopy smile on his face. He had to be on medication.
“I don’t know what to say, ma’am.” He held the slip of paper up against the light as if checking for counterfeit money. “Where did you get the gift certificate? Are you sure your friend bought it from us?”
He meant the exclusive Inner Beauty Day Spa, known for creating miracles among the women who’d bypassed the makeup and hair experimentation stage in their teens and twenties.
They’d obviously designed the small front area to be Zen-like with its minimalist decor and the natural light coming from the glass front windows, but it reminded Raina of a down-on-its-luck rental office. There was one loveseat, a potted plant, and the receptionist counter. The rest of the day spa was hidden behind a beaded curtain.
Raina pointed at the embossed logo on the card stock paper. “Are you having problems keeping your gift certificates off the black market? I’m not trying to wrangle a free haircut.”
The receptionist glanced at the ceiling as if praying this was a bad dream. “I’m not sure we have anyone who can handle…your hair.”
, said a small voice in her head.
Raina tucked a curl behind her ear. She wasn’t leaving without her miracle. “How is my Chinese hair any different than your brown hair?”
“I meant the perm.”
She laughed and pointed at her head. “Do you think I would pay for this rat’s nest? It’s natural. Why do you think I’m here? I need a miracle.”
Geez, did the man not know anything about genetics? It was bad enough sometimes her own cousins made fun of her curly hair, but the recessive gene ran in both sides of her family. Of her parents’ children, Raina won the genetic lottery. Yippee. Chinese girl with dandelion hair.
The bell on the glass door behind her chimed. Raina glanced up to see two ladies settling on the loveseat and chuckling into their hands. Heat rose to Raina’s face. They could be laughing at a joke among themselves. The beaded curtain parted, a clinking sound, and Raina spun around to see her best friend Eden Small, stepping into the room.
“Eden, please explain to this gentleman”—Raina’s voice dripped with sarcasm at the last word—“that I didn’t steal this gift certificate.”
Her best friend glanced at the receptionist. “Walt, could I speak to you for a minute.” She dragged him to a corner.
Raina couldn’t make out the whispered conversation, but judging by the frown on Walt’s face and the pleading look on Eden’s, it wasn’t good.
So much for a sleek birthday hairdo.
She checked the time on her cell phone. Good thing her last final was tomorrow, or she would have to come up with money to retake the history graduate class again.
She glanced at the two ladies behind her. They weren’t even trying to hide their interest in the whispered conversation. While Raina might be a passing interest, Eden was the Assistant editor-in-chief for the town’s weekly newspaper, which meant the town watched Raina’s BFF with a mixture of curiosity and fear for the buzz she generated when chasing a lead.
Walt returned to the receptionist counter and tapped on the monitor screen to bring up a calendar. Eden gave Raina a thumbs up sign before disappearing behind the beaded curtain. The waiting ladies whispered to each other, their voices like singing magpies. If they only knew Eden worked part-time stocking the treatment rooms and doing general cleanup it would embarrass her friend.
“We’re not supposed to use the employee discount for gift certificates. Happy birthday,” Walt said to the monitor.
Raina bet her lucky underwear he didn’t treat paying customers this way. He was lucky they weren’t in a dark alley together or she would stuff one of her grandma’s ultra strong stink bombs in his mouth and pull his underwear over his head.
Super wedgie anyone?
The bell above the front door chimed again. Walt glanced up with a smile, but it slipped when he recognized the muscular brunette. She was taller than most men, and her three-inch stilettos emphasized this. Her skin was a shade of bronze that women paid handsomely to fake from a tanning salon, but was probably the result of her mixed race.
Raina stared openly at the woman. Of course, the Amazonian beauty had high cheekbones and big eyes. Nope, Raina wasn’t the least bit bitter at the DNA roulette.
“Where is the home-wrecker?” the brunette asked, hands on her hips, her gaze sweeping through the small front area as if expecting this person to jump out from behind the loveseat.
“Hello to you too, LaShawna,” Walt said. “Do you want to make an appointment?” His tone was polite enough, but there was an edge to it. He pointedly ignored her question.
Raina’s eyes widened in recognition. LaShawna Robertson was the ex of Eden’s new boyfriend. Nothing good would come from a confrontation between the two, especially in a gossip hotspot like the day spa.
“Where is the home-wrecker? Where is Eden Small?” LaShawna demanded again.
Raina stepped closer to the beaded curtain, waiting for an opportunity to slip inside to warn Eden. Her friend was no home-wrecker, but this false accusation would travel around the small town of Gold Springs faster than the spread of an STD.
The room went silent. Everyone appeared to be holding their breath.
“Who are you talking about?” Walt finally asked.
LaShawna leaned in to speak, but Raina slipped through the beaded curtain without waiting to hear the words. The dimly lit lounge area with lilting soft music and a spritz of sugary scent was meant to encourage intimate conversation or mediation. There were overhead spot lamps the customers could turn on for reading while they waited.
The wide arched entryway on her left opened to the salon chairs for hair and makeup. The rice paper screens for the four treatment rooms were closed. She found her friend wheeling a cart with fluffy white towels and a tray of seaweed toward the rice paper screened treatment rooms.
“Eden!” Raina whispered.
Her friend glanced up. Heavy footsteps thudded behind Raina, and she saw her friend’s eyes widened in surprise. A large hand slammed into Raina’s back, shoving her against the wall, and a large body hurled herself toward Eden.
“Home-wrecker!” LaShawna screeched.
Raina straightened, wincing at what would no doubt be a bruise on her back. The adult thing would be to calm LaShawna down, even if it meant Raina swallowing her rising anger at being manhandled. While genetics unfortunately made her the size of a pygmy goat, it didn’t mean she should take being shoved with a smile.
Eden tipped her chin at LaShawna and opened her mouth, but LaShawna swung her open palm.
Eden’s head jerked back, her cheek reddened with a handprint. She stumbled into the cart and knocked over the stack of clean towels. LaShawna lunged forward, twisted Eden into a headlock, and tugged handfuls of the weave off her friend’s head. Eden screamed and batted at the muscular arms holding her hostage. Their feet trampled on the white towels.
Raina hurled into LaShawna, using her shoulder like a battering ram, but her five-foot-three frame only bounced off the broad back. Her gaze scanned the hall for a weapon. Unless she could set fire to the rice paper screens, there wasn’t much here to help her. So she did the next best thing and opened her mouth to scream.
LaShawna spun around and crammed a slick piece of seaweed into her mouth. Raina gagged at the moldy mushroom odor and salty briny taste. She tried to spit out the seaweed, but the larger woman’s back pinned her against the wall. LaShawna half turned to grab for Eden again, bringing her sweaty unshaven armpits an inch from Raina’s nose. She would die from suffocation.
Hands pulled LaShawna off. She struggled against several restraining hands. Eden sagged against the opposite wall with a bald patch on the right side of her head.
Raina spat out the glob of seaweed, and it landed on polished pink pumps. She gulped air like it was going out of style. She grimaced as she wiped LaShawna’s sweat off her cheek.
“What’s going on here?” Myra Jo asked, stepping between the woman and Eden. The spa owner looked like a miniature doll refereeing among heavyweight boxers. She looked from one woman to another, ignoring the seaweed on her pink pumps.
Women slipped out from their rice paper screen rooms to peek at what the noise was about. Wearing fluffy white bathrobes, they were in various stages of their treatment, their faces covered with black, green and orange facial masks.
“Your employee attacked me.” LaShawna tugged her half-exposed bosom back into her strappy tank top. “She’s jealous I have a child with her man.”
Eden gingerly patted at her weave. “You’re a no good lying rat. I was minding my own business when you grabbed me from behind.”
Someone snickered from the crowd. Myra Jo tilted her head at the staff, and they corralled the women back into their treatment rooms. It took a few more minutes to sort things out with LaShawna. She threatened at the top of her lungs to sue the spa until Myra Jo threw in free mud treatments and hair coloring.
“For a year?” LaShawna asked, her eyes gleaming with greed.
“A week,” Myra Jo said.
LaShawna crossed her arms. “A month.”
“Fine.” Myra Jo nodded at a woman wearing a polo shirt with the spa logo. “Please get LaShawna settled into one of the treatment rooms.” She turned to Eden and Raina, then stalked into an opposite corridor, clearly expecting them to follow in her wake.
Eden hung her head and trudged after her boss, but not before Raina saw the pinched face and suppressed tears. Her friend needed this part-time gig like a fish needed water. The struggling weekly newspaper paid her in IOUs when businesses didn’t fill the advertising spots. And it looked like Eden might have to join Raina in the unemployment line after this conversation with Myra Jo.
They continued to the opposite arched entryway, and it led to a narrow hallway with doors leading to the restrooms, the office, the walk-in storage closet, the staff break room, and the emergency exit. The dim scones barely lit the hallway, but maybe it was meant to discourage the customers from wandering over to this part of the day spa.
As she crossed the threshold into the closet called an office, Raina felt like a child being sent to the principal’s office. Myra Jo eased onto her chair, sighing as if she had been on her feet the entire morning. She gestured for them to sit.
Raina eyed the pile of paperwork teetering from the chair across from the battered desk. “I’ll stand.” She launched into the explanation of LaShawna barging into the spa.
Eden studied her shoes during the entire recital. By the set of her hunched shoulders and clenched jaw, her pride and embarrassment at the pubic fight meant she wouldn’t grovel for her job. But Raina knew pride didn’t pay for the Frosted Flakes, her friend’s breakfast of choice, or the gas to get around town.
“Eden, even though you’re my brother’s girlfriend, I’ll have to let you go. LaShawna has full custody of my nephew, and I can’t antagonize her for my brother’s sake,” Myra Jo said, her face full of regret. “I’m sorry.”
“Wait,” Raina said. “It wasn’t her fault. And Taylor and LaShawna aren’t even together anymore. Why is she upset Eden is dating her ex?”
“It’s okay, Raina.” Eden nodded stiffly at Myra Jo. “I understand. I’ll get my stuff.”
“But Eden did nothing wrong,” Raina said.
“It’s fine,” Eden said.
“No, it’s not. It’s not fair. You need this job,” Raina said.
“I don’t want trouble for my boyfriend’s family,” Eden whispered even though Myra Jo could hear everything she said.
The spa owner looked pensive, studying them through lowered eyes as if this would give them some privacy.
Raina wanted to rail at the injustice of the situation, but her friend wouldn’t appreciate the interference. If only—
The building shook, rattling the overhead light fixture. The pile of paperwork on the chair spilled onto the floor.
Raina’s wide eyes studied the other two women. Was that a bomb?
Myra Jo, her face pinched and white, crouched in her seat. Eden’s gaze scanned the room, looking for a threat.
The office door banged open and Walt stuck in his head, his eyes bright and alert. Something snapped him out of his reverie. “Myra Jo, a car ran into the side of the building. Connie is on the phone with the police.”
Myra Jo stood, swaying slightly until she stiffened. “Oh, my God. Could this day get any worse?” She followed the receptionist outside with Eden hot on her heels.
Raina trotted after the two women, but lost track of them in the gathering crowd and unfamiliar building. Once again, women left their beauty treatments to check out the ruckus. If there was no special run on the
Gold Springs Weekly
tomorrow morning, then Eden was slacking off. Raina followed the herd outside and to the rear of the building. She squinted against the bright sunlight.
At the flash of red, Raina raced toward the crash scene with her heart in a vise. Please don’t let it be Po Po’s car. Her grandmother was still in San Francisco but had left her car keys with her BFF in case the car had to be moved from the senior center parking lot.