“Ma’am, you’re next.” The irritated voice jostled Nema from her thoughts. Stalking forward she slapped Jung’s basket loudly on top of the scarred wood counter. The woman who had spoken was a stranger. Looking to be in her fifties with short, graying brown hair and a snub nose, the lady appeared to be not amused by Nema and her racket. She was probably one of the gardeners that had been recruited for the season’s rush. Holding eye-contact with the woman, Nema reached into her bag with one hand and pawed for Jung’s Q-card. Hyun had brought it to her as she had been putting on her jacket to leave the salon, a fact that irked her just as much as Jung and her list. A high-pitched beep sounded as the card was dragged across the scanner. The woman’s brown eyes scrolled over the computer screen that was set into the counter top. She gave Nema a stern look.
“Jung needs to catch up on her hours in the garden.” Nema’s lips tightened at the way she pronounced the J the same as in judge. “All trade goods are prohibited while she is in deficit.” Looking to be average in height, the woman was still a solid six inches taller than Nema. Evidently it hadn’t occurred to her not look superior. Nema shrugged and drummed her palms against the edge of the counter.
“Put in what she can have and leave the rest out.” No Q-13 honey again. Jung would be miffed. Nema felt herself smile on the inside.
“This should be simple enough then.” With her thumb and forefinger the woman picked the basket up like it was contaminated and headed for the Local Goods section.
As soon as she turned her back, Nema placed both hands on the counter and jumped, landing on her stomach. She only had seconds to see the computer screen before someone would push her down, but she needed to know what else was on Jung’s list. Several people in line at the bakery counter began nudging each other to look.
“Hey! Get off there!” A heavy-set young man in denim overalls and a full beard rolled toward her with the wide stride of a sailor freshly into port. Racing her eyes down the list she read every item before sliding back to the floor and giving the big man with a harried glare. A blast of wind from the door as it slid open pried at the edges of her hood while several people lined up behind her.
“You have no chairs for people to wait. My legs are tired!” Raising a hand she shooed him away from her. “Go do your work. Leave me be.” Looking like a large dog caught in the path of an angry, back-alley feline the man looked confused for a moment and just stood there. “What are you, stupid?” Nema stomped her foot at him. “Go on. Get!” Beneath the beard his pale skin flushed at the verbal abuse and his soft, blue eyes tightened in the corners. Crossing his arms over his stomach, he planted his feet and stared her down. Very carefully she copied his stance and stared back.
Someone in the bakery line laughed and called out “You go, Jethro! You’ve got this.”
As the seconds ticked by Nema felt herself turn to stone while Jethro’s angry expression began to slide into regret. His forehead started to shine as sweat popped out. Trapped inside her jacket, face partially covered by loose hair, Nema felt her own body heat rising. The superior woman was taking too long. She was probably plotting how to make tomatoes disappear so she wouldn’t have to put them in Jung’s basket. Every minute that passed was one less minute she had to get her dinner ready. Angrily she narrowed her eyes and flat-out snarled at the hairy titan, making her lip curl upward to expose her small, pointed incisors. Jethro’s jaw dropped open a little and he blinked. The watchers in the bakery line groaned and a few chuckles scampered along the counter. Nema made the shooing motion again.
“You lose, now leave me alone.”
“Are you finished?” The gray haired woman reappeared and shoved Jung’s basket across the counter. She gave Jethro a withering look. “I’m sure you’re needed in the back, somewhere.
Pulling the basket down so she could see what was inside Nema made a slow, methodical assessment of the contents. The tomatoes were there along with two jars of sauce, six red potatoes, four green peppers, two onions and a single sachet of black tea leaves that looked suspiciously puffy. Poking a finger into the center of the small cotton bag she deflated it, exposing the fact that it was only half-filled. She threw it back on the counter.
“Fill that.” The woman huffed but didn’t reach for the sachet. Nema barked up at her. “No cheating! Fill the bag.”
“There isn’t enough. If I fill that bag then others won’t get any.” Her eyes gave a slight twitch to the left as she spoke. Nema slapped her hand hard on the counter.
“You lie. And even if you don’t, so what? Jung is entitled to the tea like everyone else. If it runs out then it runs out.” She raised an eyebrow. Everything runs out eventually. Who did this jot bab think she was?
“Your sister needs to make up her hours.” The woman’s facial muscles lost some of their tension, the corners of her mouth beginning to slant downward.
“Like you said, it only effects her right to the trade items. Black tea is a local product.” She didn’t add that it wasn’t a very good one. Q-23 had only started growing tea two years ago, and they still seemed a bit lost as to how to coax the best flavor from it.
Finished with the inspection and satisfied that everything possible was there she raised her head and pushed the sachet at the woman. Clearly reluctant, the lady took the bag and went back into the rough-made stacks. When she returned a moment later, the sachet was full. She dropped it on the counter in front of Nema like it was slimy, her nose wrinkling just enough to give a clear view of the insides. “Make sure you tell Jung about her hours.”
Nema swept the tea bag into the basket and held out her hand for the return of Jung’s Q-card. When the plastic rectangle was safely in her hand she said “Not my job, you tell her.” Walking quickly she pushed through the line and headed for the parking lot.