*TW: Smoking references*

The crackling of the record player jolted me awake in the morning. Patsy Cline’s deep, smooth voice glistened in the young woman’s ears as she moved the needle across the spinning black disc.

“I’m insane… I’m insane… for feeling…” Her content-intentioned voice filled the room.

Despite her short stature, her orange hair reached no higher than her shoulder blades, and she wore it in a bun-style updo. She looked in the mirror to see how she looked. Her white nightgown skimmed the sides of her small breasts before ending at the ankle.

The young lady was conceited as she danced around the room, listening to the last few seconds of the lovely Patsy Cline. The record ended with a crisp, leaving the air feeling lonely once more. She returned to her mirror, this time staring at her marble, blue eyes.

Annalise Booker was a 28-year-old woman with a strong personality. Grace was never an attainable trait for her, despite her elegant voice and body. She was well aware of this, but she never felt the need to express herself in a different way. Annalise adjusted her torso as she drew a tight red dress over her hips. A white and silver belt was latched above her pelvis, and a pair of pentagon-shaped earrings drooped from her small ears, swinging with every lean. Annalise was about to leave when she was abruptly stopped by a knock at the front door.

The hallway was illuminated by the sun. While the heat hit her ankles, Annalise put on her shoes. Her shoes resembled bowler shoes, with a small heel protruding from the back. They were velvety, with a black stripe on the right side that faded to a creamy white. When she opened the door, she saw a small envelope in front of her eyes. The letter was polished and appeared to have been flattened by a hot iron. The wax seal came undone with a tacky tearing sound, and the words ANNALISE BOOKER, CHARLESTON, APT 6 were boldly written in black on the front of the envelope. She yanked out the letter with haste, as if an emergency awaited.

7th of June, 1963

Walker’s Tea Club is hosting a tea party.

6:00 p.m., Marley Tea House

Raymond Walker is the host.

Annalise’s hands shook with delight.

“THE RALPH WALKING.” She couldn’t say anything. She’s been wanting to go to the Tea House for months. It was a stunning structure, and Mr. Walker only invited the most daring and beautiful people. He was well-known throughout the community. He was a steady businessman who wooed every woman. Despite his eccentric personality, he was a successful businessman who owned the best-selling herbal tea in America. However, being eccentric often brought you closer to success than others.

Annalise slid the mail under her door and went about her morning routine, slowly creeping through the streets of Charleston. People of all ages passed her by. Beautiful men in suits with buttons across their torsos and beautiful women in distinct dresses. The tea party was just five hours away. She had her gown in mind and, thankfully, it was hanging from the closet hooks. A gold gown with flowers on the top seam, encircling her chest and exposing her pale shoulders, and a pair of white heels to add height, as if she wasn’t already tall enough. After all, she had always wanted to live the high life, but it would never be possible with her current financial situation. Credit cards were out of the question… they were simply unavailable to a single female at the time. Annalise returned home after a short walk, stretching her feet and toes in the process. She slurped the hot and creamy liquid through her perched lips as she made a small bowl of Campbell’s onion soup. She washed her hands and took the dress from her armour.

The record player started up again. Annalise tossed her body around to the beat of a Sam Cooke song while admiring her gold gown. She moved the dress around her bottom slowly, humming the melody aloud. She slid her heels over her toes, noticing the stiffness against her foot. Her feet will hurt, but every step will be worth it. Annalise stepped out of her apartment, feeling the coolness of the Summer evening on the tips of her toes. When a checker taxi stopped on the street for help, she gave the old driver a dollar. The driver smelled strongly of cigars, and his grey hair poofed from the sides of the headrest. The scent filled her nose, making her want another Embassy Gold. When the driver spoke up from his seat, she interrupted her thoughts, attempting to stop the craving.

“Where are you going?” In a scraggly voice, he inquired.

“Marley Tea Room.” She confirmed while touching her hair to ensure it was still in place. She arrived in front of a church-like structure with the words Marley Tea House engraved in stone after a smoky drive.

At the door, she was greeted by none other than Raymond Walker himself.

“HELLO.” He said it confidently. In his excitement, he appeared to have little control over his arms, which flung up and down. Annalise expected him to be firm and polite. She assumed it was a businessman’s aura, but she was clearly hasty in her assessment.

“Mr. Walker, good evening.” She said it respectfully.

“Yes. Annalise Booker, indeed.” He responded as he flipped through a list of names on a scrap of paper. The host bobbed his head up and down, seemingly faking every movement as he searched for her name. Mr. Walker peered over the edge of his sheet.

“I always remember faces, and you definitely look like Annalise.” He boasted confidently.

“Enter! ‘Sit down, socialize, whatever brought you to the tea house!’ Raymond Walker motioned with his arms to the hall of round tables. He gave a wink. It was a strange wink. After meeting him, Annalise realized why people thought he was odd. He was without a doubt the most eccentric man she had ever met. She couldn’t decide whether she was defeated by him or completely impressed by his charm.

Chubby Checker was playing on a nearby speaker, and the hall was packed with dancing ladies in flowing gowns. Some have a large flower beneath the breast, while others look like a perfect Cinderella impersonation. There were more females than males. Perhaps it was because they were the only ones who were getting the dance floor going. Regardless of the crowd, Annalise always walked with her head held high and her chest out. A cling rang out in the room, and the record abruptly came to a halt. By the sound of it, the vinyl had definitely adopted a scratch by this point.

“Gentlemen and ladies! “Greetings from the Marley Tea House!”

The audience applauded, and a few “woo’s” could be heard among the din.

“Thank you so much for coming! We’ll start with tea and then move on to desserts. I hope it appeals to your taste buds!”

Raymond’s face lit up when desserts were mentioned, as if he wasn’t the one giving the speech. The circular tables chimed with clanging noises, and Annalise sat with two young women. One was dressed in an emerald gown with a diamond necklace that hugged her neck tightly. The other women were dressed in an orange belted white gown with little to no jewelry touching their skin.

“Donna.” The girl in green introduced herself by holding her hand out in the open air.

“I’m Susan, or Su for short.” For a brief moment, the woman in orange stuttered.

“I suppose you could call me Su.” Annalise extended her hand to them.

“Annalise. Ann is abbreviated as Ann. “I suppose you could call me Ann.” She responded, almost mocking Su with her lofty humour.

Annalise was taken aback by the woman’s high-pitched chuckle. It appears that her mockery was ineffective.

“How did you end up at the tea house?” Donna makes a proposal.

“I got a letter delivered to my door.” Annalise elaborated.

Donna and Su exchanged blissful glances.

“What?! A letter?” “Well, you must be unique!”

“I am, yes… I am. “Didn’t you get one?” Her arrogance was getting the best of her, but she didn’t mind. She only wanted to learn more about Raymond Walker and, of course, get close to him.

“Mr. Walker is a good friend of our husbands. They’ve been working within the law for a few years.” Su was shaking her sugar packet as she prepared it. Annalise raised an eyebrow in response to their remark and quickly picked up her sugar packet. She never put sugar in her tea, but it was handy for playing the fiddle.

The tea pots were strewn about in each bubble of people. An aqua teapot was placed in the center of their table. With its gold rim outlining the top of the cup, it was absolutely stunning. Annalise turned to face Donna and Su. She noticed they had already begun drinking their tea, making unnecessary sipping sounds with each cup lift. When a waiter brushed up against her shoulder, she managed to catch the young man’s attention.

“I don’t have a tea cup.” “How can you expect me to be at a tea house if there is no tea?” She spoke quickly.

“Yes. I appreciate it. You are the chosen one. Booker, Annalise?” While studying her face, the waiter inquired.

“Yes. “My name is Annalise Booker.” The waiter moved in closer to her, trying to hear through the din of the other guests.

“Ahhh. That makes sense. Mr. Walker is making a special tea for you.”

Annalise’s heart skipped a beat as she hoped her tablemates overheard their conversation.

After a few moments, Raymond Walker made his way down the aisle with only one cup of tea, his gaze fixed on Annalise. From a safe distance, she could finally admire his looks and style. A white blazer was worn with black satin pants. That night, he added a black bowtie to his outfit, making it a complete ensemble. Mr. Walker had short, curly dark brown hair and the build of a middle-aged man. He arrived at her table after exchanging a few glances.

“This tea is just for you, Annalise.”

“Thank you very much. “How kind of you!” She responded with zeal. He went back and forth as fast as he came. He was a strange man.

The porcelain cup was different from those of her colleagues across the table. Their cups were ocean blue, while hers was a luxurious gold, matching the color of her twirly curvy dress. Annalise drank a sip of tea. It was as sweet… and strange… as Mr. Walker. In fact, it was extremely sweet and had a perplexing, herbal odor. Annalise was looked up by Donna and Su.

“You are a stand-out woman, Ann.” They nearly said it simultaneously.

Something felt strange after a few more sips. Her stomach gurgled with sweet tea, and she pressed her other hand against her abdomen. Her head was filled with a painful ache, and she struggled to think at a normal pace. She raised her head to the guest behind the tea pot after some time of staring at her stomach.

Donna and Su’s faces begin to distort, eerily similar to Edvard Munch’s paintings. Annalise clenched the seat’s bottom and twirled her body left and right, observing the other people’s expressions. They were all starting to feel horrified. Some have drooping eyes, while others are transitioning to a zombie-like state. As she attempted to stand on her skinny heels, she became alarmed.

“Mr. Walker! Mr. Walker!” Please excuse me! Walker, Mr.!” She shouted as loud as possible, stressing her vocal ropes to the place of depletion. She scanned the room as everything in sight turned red. Despair struck as she let out a pitchy, nasally scream, doubling the pain on the inside. The holler blurred her vision, and the redness faded gradually.

Annalise was crunched on her knees in the middle of the hall, her palms covering her ears like winter earmuffs. Sweat soaked her hands, and warmth swarmed her palms, causing them to clam up. When she raised her head from her knees, she discovered that the room was as silent as the dead. All of the guests collapsed on their tables after taking a closer look. Their tea had spilt all over their hands, rendering their faces invalid and unseeable.

When a pair of black dress shoes clunked in front of Annalise’s hands on the floor, she shook with fear. She raised her head. The white blazer appeared all too familiar, and the black bowtie appeared slanted, whether due to her vision or the bowtie itself.

“Are you Mr. Walker?” Raymond fixed his gaze on her.

“Oh, my goodness. Annalise Booker, you are truly unique. “