It seemed quite out of place. Located in a suburban strip mall, surrounded by outlet stores and fast food joints, was a store that stood out, and clearly intentionally so. While all the others kept their names simple and safe, brands that would be recognized and understood internationally, this store was named Dragon Fire. On each side of the name was a dragon’s head spewing fire from its mouth. A large moving truck was parked out in front. Two young local girls had stopped from their morning walk to look upon it.
“So what do you think it is?”
“I…don’t really know. It looks a bit intimidating-oh!”
Distracted by the decorative design, one of the ladies eventually noticed underneath the name, and pointed to the subtext “TEA SHOP.”
“It’s a tea shop! That’s…unexpected considering the sign.”
“Probably just a marketing gimmick gone awry. We’ve never had a tea shop in our town before! Who do you think is the owner?”
“Maybe it’s another girl looking to make a nice little tea party getaway!”
“I hope it’s a nice handsome British Gentleman here to show us the ways of tea!”
“If we’re going that route, maybe it’ll be a retired Japanese Tea Master, looking to settle down and train a new apprentice in the old ways!”
As the girls were lost in their thoughts and fantasies, a third male voice came up from behind them.
“I’m afraid it’s none of those, ladies.”
Startled, they both turned around startled to see a young man, dressed in a stylish blue suit and tie, sporting quite a fetching fedora. His short beard, connecting each side of his face, couldn’t conceal his dashing good looks. The girls internally swooned before engaging in conversation with love struck voices.
“Oh, do you know about this shop?”
“Well, I’m about to spend most of my hours in that building, so I may know a thing or two about it.”
A handsome man, so well dressed, voice soft as silk, eyes that seemed to penetrate the girls’ soul and undress their very essence. To them, it’s clear who this man was!
“Oh! You must be the owner, then!”
The girls were startled once again by an angry, grunting shout. They looked towards the store, and saw a giant, burly man walking down the ramp of the truck, holding multiple boxes stacked on top of one another. Simply dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt, face covered in a straggly beard, his hulking muscles were bulging through his clothes, strained by the heavy items he was carrying. Why he was carrying four at a time was confusing to the girls. His death stare could be felt penetrating their soul, ripping away their very essence.
“GET YER ASS OVER HERE AND HELP ME CARRY THESE BOXES!”
“My goodness, that mover is rude!”
“That, my ladies, is the owner of Dragon Fire, the lovely little tea shop opening up next week.” The girls looked at Randy, then back to the owner, and continued their walk without another word. Randy shouted back at them.
“Be sure to come visit, I’ll be there!”
The girls stopped, looked back, smiled and nodded. Randy knew they’d be back. Now, to go help Dale…
After a few hours of various unpacking and unloading, from chairs to teacups to the ever important cash register, it seemed like there was no end in sight to the work that was going to be required to make this place functional. Even so, Randy could see Dale’s vision starting to manifest. He looked towards the entrance, a small bell tied to the top of the door to let them know when a customer walks in. To the left wall, shelving for where they were going to put all of the tea for sale. Then to the right, where the cashier’s booth will be set up. Standing in the middle of the room, Randy looked to his left, staring at the door leading to the back room, and then to the right will be all the various wares. And all the way to the back of the store is the glorious tea bar, where many folks will be able to sit down and enjoy themselves a fine cup of tea. Dale took a break to get some water, as Randy looked around the room once again to take it all in.
“It’s hard to believe, but somehow you managed to find a way to get this far.” Dale grunted in agreement. “Now the trick will be to keep it afloat after it opens. Remember, you agreed to give me some control as well.” Dale grunted in disagreement. “I’m doing it for your sake, you know. You have this nasty habit of trying to do everything on your own.” Dale gulped the last bit of water as he closely eyed Randy.
“What do ya want to control, exactly…?”
“Mostly the things you don’t like doing or aren’t good at. Namely, anything to do with people. Grant me the ability to hire and fire people, you know as well as I do my judgement of character is much better than yours.” Dale grunted in annoyed agreement. “And to ensure your temper doesn’t ruin things, like how you nearly scared away those girls I was speaking with earlier, I need to have FULL control, meaning you cannot fire anyone I hire for any reason. Otherwise, this won’t work.”
“I have your word?”
“You have my word. You’ve already put up signs around town saying we’re hiring, anyway. I’m going to go take the truck back, then grab me some food. Look to hire no more than four other people. Try to get them all by the time I come back.”
“That’ll be an easy task!”
It was not an easy task. Randy was now on his eighth candidate, with none of the previous ones making the cut. Even though he had full control over the hiring and firing process, he still had to select people that Dale could work with. Or, more importantly, who would be able to put up with Dale. Then there was the ever pressing matter of Randy didn’t want to be bored! Every single person who has come through the door has felt like all the rest, and the current person didn’t seem any different. Seemed to be fresh out of high school, dark skinned, purple hoodie, black pants, something of a strange spikey afro, Randy wondered if this youngster was old enough to even work. The only difference was, unlike everyone before who tried their best to put on a bright and sunny face, this kid’s eyes were almost as bored as Randy’s were at this point.
“So, Kyle, was it? Why exactly do you wish to work at Dragon Fire?”
“Paycheck sounds nice.”
“A paycheck?” In a way, the blunt honesty was a bit refreshing compared to all the flowery language used previously. “There’s lots of other places hiring around here, why take a chance with an unknown place like us? Are you a fan of tea?”
“Nope, I have no interest in it. But the sign design looked interesting. I’m hoping I can at least find a job in which I won’t be bored at.”
“You’re just looking to not be bored?” Randy raised an eyebrow, seemingly oblivious to his shared mutual feelings. “You do know this is a job, right?”
“I’ll still work of course, that’s a given. But if YOU had to choose between a place with dragons coming out of the sign and flipping patties at King of Burgers, which would you choose?”
Every candidate so far had the same canned responses. They either all went to the same job counselor or visited the same website. It put a bit of a smile on Randy’s face as he realized this candidate was indeed different. Between a bunch of fakes saying how much they adore the world of tea but unable to answer a few basic questions of it, and someone who just comes out and says he wants a paycheck and entertainment, Randy knew which one Dale would rather have. But after two hours, that’s only one person, and Dale should be back soon.
Speak of the devil, Randy thought, as the door’s bell jingled, signaling the arrival of someone. Randy assumed it was Dale, but as he looked over Kyle’s shoulder, it took him a minute for his brain to process what he was seeing. Three girls had walked in. Three familiar girls.
The first one, her big bust nearly bursting out of her elegant red Chinese dress with a white flower pattern, perfectly complimented by her long, wavy red hair and luscious red lips. “Excuse me, Dale, are you here?” Green eyes darting around the store, Randy remembers her name well; Serenity.
Next, her straight blonde hair held back by her pointed ears, giving off an elf like aura, complimented by her elegant, pretty face. Her blue eyes make contact with Randy’s. Her loose flowing top hovering above her blue jeans, fishnet sleeves covering her hands and forearms. “Wait, is that…?” It looks like Opal has recognized him too.
“Randy, it’s you! Hello!” The sweet, childlike voice came from the third girl. Her yellow dress going down to her knees, her shoulder length bouncy brown hair complimenting her hazel eyes and adorable features. It could be none other than Allie. Randy’s mind raced, thinking of what might be going on. Then, a slow, sly smile made its way across his face.
“You said you wanted a place with entertainment, Kyle?”
“Welcome to Dragon Fire…”
Dale walked into the store, the jingle of the bell feeling like a little reminder of the new adventure he was about to embark in. He expected to be back much sooner, but he decided to run a few errands, knowing Randy was at the store. Throughout their many years of friendship, he knew he could count on Randy to take care of things while he was away. Looking around, he noticed that a lot more of the unpacking was finished. Had Randy found the workers already?
The door the back room swung open, and out came Randy, alongside another young man. “Dale!” Randy’s face was beaming with joy “You’re finally back! I’ve got some news!”
Immediately Dale knew something was horribly wrong. Dale was never good at picking up hints from people, but being around Randy so long, he’s picked up on his ways. The way he raised his inflection when he said news, to the wide smile combined with his narrowing eyes, Dale knew something was afoot. His eyes narrowed right back at Randy.
“What did you do…?”
“What do you mean?”
The game was on. Randy did something. Something Dale could not see. Now it was a matter of figuring out what. As Dale was looking around, Randy spoke up again.
“By the way, I hired our workers! This is Kyle.”
“Hello Mr. Dale, I’m looking forward to-“
Kyle was taken aback, and Randy had to turn his head away to keep from laughing. Dale kept looking, but couldn’t find whatever he was looking for. Dale began to sniff around after a scent brushed up against his nose.
“Did you make popcorn?!”
Randy turned towards Kyle, “See? I told you you’d be entertained.” Dale’s eyes widened.
“Ah ha! I figured it out! You didn’t actually do anything! You just tricked me so I would go looking for nothing, and make me look like a fool!” Kyle’s confusion was clear.
“What did you do to trick him…?” Randy shrugged as he continued to hold back his laughter.
“Well, whatever. Yer name’s Kyle, right? What are you, 15? Are ya old enough to even work yet?”
“I warned you he may be accidentally rude,” Randy whispered into Kyle’s ear.
“I just graduated high school, so yes I’m good.” Kyle tried to hold back his annoyance.
Dale turned away from the two and looked towards the back of the store, the tea bar still covered in various items. He knew he smelled popcorn, so he began to walk over to find the source. While he was looking away, Randy opened the door to the back room, and ushered the three girls out.
“I’m surprised you two were able to get so much work done all on yer own.”
“Oh, we didn’t. Kyle wasn’t the only one I hired. I also picked up three beautiful ladies to help out as well!”
Dale began to turn around. “Oh, is that-“ his words were cut off as he went wide eyed. Kyle looked back and forth at Dale’s shocked expression, and the sheepish looks of Serenity, Opal, and Allie. Dale’s face quickly went from shocked to exasperated, bellowing out one quick sentence. “You’re all fired.”
“Daaale, buddy, don’t be like that!” Randy said as he went over and patted him on the back. A gesture between friends meant to diffuse the situation, it seemed to Kyle to be ineffective, perhaps even making the situation worse.
“What kind of a joke do you think this is?! Did you call them?!”
“I assure you I was just as surprised as you were when they all walked through that door.” Dale’s eyes narrowed, and his tone grow more dire.
“Your games end now, Randy. Get rid of them.”
“Nope.” Randy maintained his almost innocent tone voice, as if he was jokingly mocking him. But Dale was having none of it.
“We haven’t even opened yet and you are treating my store like a joke?!”
“Dale, I-“ Allie tried to speak up, but was quickly cut off.
“SHUT UP!” Dale’s voice was loud and booming. It sent shivers down Kyle’s spine. The girl didn’t even look like she wanted to object. But Randy’s expression changed dramatically. Angry was too strong a word, annoyed was too soft. He turned towards the girls.
“Allie, Opal, Serenity, please go wait outside.”
“Maybe we should just go…” Opal spoke up.
“No. Wait outside. We’ve still got work to do.”
“You’re not listening! They’re not going to work here!”
“You gave me your word that only I can decide who gets fired.” Dale and Randy glared at each other, none of them moving an inch. Finally, Dale spoke in a low, commanding tone.
“Go wait outside, and don’t go anywhere.”
Kyle stood there for what felt like eternity, having felt an uneasiness he hasn’t known before. He’s had fights with people he’s known, but he’s never stumbled into an argument with complete strangers, much less his bosses. Clearly he stepped into something he has no involvement in, yet no one asked him to leave. Maybe he should’ve taken the hint, but instead he was instead frozen in place, as Dale’s previous shout at the girl seemed to have paralyzed him. The first few minutes were full of Dale shouting and screaming as he paced around the store. Randy just stood there, his expression never changing even a little. Finally, it seemed like Dale had screamed all the energy out of himself, and Randy began to speak.
“Are you done?” Dale continued to glare but did not say anything. “I did not plan this. I can assure you of that. And while you’re too hard headed to even bother explaining why, I know why these three are here.”
“You’re just looking to amuse yourself.” For the first time, Dale had a sense of hurt in his voice. This is the first time Kyle has ever met this man, and all he ever felt from him was a sense of apathetic aloofness and anger. Yet despite all that, something about the hurt in his voice landed in Kyle’s lower stomach. He didn’t know this man, but the way he spoke would be clear to anyone.
“You keep saying that. Do you really think I would do that to you? I knew you would be unhappy, but damn it all even I didn’t expect you to hold onto the past so hard.”
“You thought I’d forget everything?!”
“No! That’s why I decided on this. Because you’re too stupid to forget the things you should. But you need some way to move past everything already. Even you could have figured out by now why those girls are here.” A deafening silence filled the room. Dale had taken a seat at the bar, looking down at nothing, shoulders slumped to make him look like a giant white boulder. Eventually, Randy went and sat beside him. His voice finally softened up.
“You need to get over yourself. And I think the girls need some closure, too.”
“They don’t deserve it.”
“You can think that if you wish. But you knew those three better than anyone. Taking away your history, is there anyone else you’d rather have working at a tea shop than them?” Dale heaved a heavy sigh to signal his reluctant agreement.
“Bring them back in.” Randy got up, and got the three girls. They came in, and walked to just a few feet from Dale. He got up, and turned towards them all. He took a deep breath in and prepared to speak. As this was going on, Randy reached behind the counter, grabbed the elusive bowl of popcorn Dale smelled earlier, and went over to Kyle.
“Uhh, where did this even come from?”
“When it comes to important things, Kyle, I can be a bit lazy and absent minded. But for moments like this, I am always prepared. You will know when it is time to eat.”
Kyle looked over and saw the rest staring at them, the girls looking confused and Dale giving them both a death glare. He took another deep breath, and this time spoke in a much calmer tone than Kyle was expecting.
“Despite your reasons for wanting to work here, I cannot deny that you’ll be good for the store. You should all have guessed already that I’m holding Dragon Fire as more important than myself. I cannot let my personal feelings get in the way anymore. Serenity. Opal. Allie. Welcome to Dragon Fire.” All three of them looked to be beaming with relief and happiness, as they then turned to each other. Serenity spoke up first, side eyeing the other girls. The jealousy was palpable in both her gaze and tone.
“So…who are these two?”
“Wait a minute…” Opal went from confusion to shocked realization, “YOU’RE Serenity?!”
“Yeah, and you are?”
“Opal, the person who had to hear about how horrible you were after you were gone!”
“Opal…?” Allie had an almost blissful aloof look to her. “You were the reason Dale didn’t want to be friends with me for so long…”
“Excuse me…?!” Opal turned towards her in anger. Kyle’s hand instinctively dove into the popcorn bowl. Randy spoke up, just soft enough to not be overheard.
“Are you entertained?”
“Do a fine job working for us, and I assure you that you’ll find as much entertainment as you can handle here.”
“I will do whatever you ask, so long as you let me figure this mess out.”
“That’s what I like to hear…”