A woman looks at the large clock on the wall and nods her head. “Almost time,” she says as she picks up a silver serving tray from the sideboard and sets it on the round, wooden table in the center of the room. The tray contains a lovely white porcelain tea set, hand-painted with delicate red flowers. There are two clean cups at the ready, resting on their matching saucers. The woman takes a plate of fresh scones and places them on the table along with a small assortment of condiments: various jams and jellies, as well as fresh clotted cream. The musky, floral aroma of Darjeeling drifts through the cozy tea shop as the woman places another log on the fire. She moves two well-worn armchairs into place at the table and wipes her hands on her immaculate apron. She looks over the setting for a moment and nods. Sitting down in the chair facing the door, she folds her hands into her lap and waits.
The door opens with a tinkle as a thin, middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses steps into the shop. He closes the door behind him but walks no further, glancing around the room with a frown.
“Have a seat, dear. You must be exhausted from your trip,” says the woman.
The man hesitates a moment before walking to the empty chair. He sits on the edge as if he might leave again at any moment. “My trip?” His frown deepens.
The woman smiles and gestures at the items on the table. “You’ve been on a very long trip. Have some tea, dear. It helps.” Dropping a sugar cube into each cup, she pours the tea and places a steaming cup in front of him.
The gentle aroma melts away some of the man’s exhaustion and his shoulders and head lift a little with each inhale. He reaches for the cup and stares into the deep brown contents.
She picks up her tea and takes a sip, closing her eyes for a moment. “The autumn harvest has the best flavor, don’t you think?”
The man neither drinks his tea nor says anything for several minutes. “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to remember where I was going.” His hand tightens around the delicate cup.
“Traveling can be very tiring. It will come back to you,” she says. She sets down her tea and moves a small crystal vase full of tiny lavender roses to the side to make more room for the scones.
The sweet scent reminds the man of something—perfume and soft brown eyes. Long fingers laced through his. A smile that was always slightly lopsided and always waiting for him. “Erin,” he says quietly. “My wife…” He sets down the teacup.“ Erin loved listening to me play the piano. I stopped playing, though. I can’t remember why.” He clenches his hands and stands as if to leave. “Where is she?”
“You came on this trip alone, didn’t you? Have a scone, dear. They’re fresh.” She takes a small golden scone and breaks it in half, applying a liberal dollop of clotted cream. The scone smells strongly of almonds.
Tea and almonds. It’s so familiar, he thinks. Bits of memories dance just out of reach, like papers swirling in the wind. He picks up a scone and turns it over, not really seeing it. “Alone. But Erin said we’d be together.”
“Did she?” asks the woman. She sips her tea and observes the man over the rim of her cup.
He sinks into the chair and nibbles on the scone. The bitter taste of the over-toasted almonds reminds him of… something. Setting the scone down, memories drift through his mind again and finally settle long enough to be decoded. The countless blood and neurological tests. The fateful trip to the hospital when he and Erin sat shell-shocked as the doctor went over the results. Degenerative. Incurable. Those words echoing in his head as the doctor ticked off the treatments that might slow, but would never stop, the monster that lurked in his genes.
For a while after the diagnosis, he felt numb, going through the motions of life as if he were watching it through someone else’s eyes. When the monster emerged and began to steal his identity piece by piece, the blessed numbness dissolved, dropping him into an endless spiral of anger and depression. He picked so many pointless fights with Erin and his family because their support felt like nothing but pity. He spent so many days holed up in bed, mired in self-pity and misery.
He looks at the clock, following the large golden pendulum as it swings back and forth. “I wasted so much time.” A tear slips down his face and drips onto the tablecloth as he remembers the last day he was able to play the piano. He holds up his hands as if seeing them for the first time. “My body betrayed me. Erin had to do everything. Feed me, wash me, dress me, help me go to the bathroom.” He turns back to the woman, his eyes narrowed in pain. “Why isn’t she here?”
The woman finishes her scone and gently dabs the corners of her mouth with her napkin, leaving behind blood-red lipstick stains.
“It was awful for her. I could tell she hated every minute of it.” He chews his lower lip. “Maybe she hated me for putting her through that. Maybe she wanted to end it,” he whispers.
The woman sets down her napkin. “Did she end it?”
He pulls in a sharp breath and shakes his head violently. “No, that’s not possible! She loves me! She couldn’t do something like that,” he says as the final pieces of his memories fall into place. His shoulders slump.
He remembers the tea she gave him; it was very sweet with a strong residual bitterness. When he asked what kind it was, Erin stared at her tightly clasped hands for several moments, her white knuckles ready to leap through her skin.
“Darjeeling,” she said finally. She closed her eyes and leaned her face close to his as if to kiss him. “I can’t go on like this. I’m sorry, Ben. It’ll be over soon,” she whispered.
Before he could ask what she meant, his heart began to pound in his chest, and then inside his head. The world spun and his stomach rebelled. His muscles seized and spasmed for what seemed like an eternity. Then everything slowed and his body felt strangely quiet. Finally, there was nothing.
Tears run down his face. “That can’t be right. She didn’t do that. She didn’t!” he yells, banging his fists on the table. His teacup rattles in its saucer, the tea perilously close to spilling over. He jumps up and paces back and forth shaking his head.
The woman nods and pushes a button on the wall. There’s a faint hiss and a click. “And if she did? Could you forgive her?”
Ben stops and jerks as if hit. “Forgive her?” He comes back to the table and collapses into the chair. “That can’t be right. That can’t be what happened.” Running his hand through his hair, he says, “Dear God in heaven, I’m so damned tired I can’t think straight.”
The woman’s hand trembles for a moment as she pours herself another cup of tea, but she doesn’t spill a drop. “Have some tea, dear, before it gets cold.”
Ben picks up the cup and admires the blood-red flowers for several moments. “Spider lilies. Erin’s favorite.” He sips the steaming tea, amazed that it’s still hot. Its delicate flavor washes over him—warm and soothing with no bitterness lurking under the sweetness.
He stares into the empty cup as he runs through his memories, rewinding and reexamining every moment and word. Emotions flit across his face: surprise, confusion, anger, and sadness. The woman glances at the clock from time to time but says nothing.
Finally, he slams his cup down. “I’ve got it!”
The woman’s eyebrows lift. “Do you?”
Ben slaps his hand on the table and laughs. “Yes! This ‘trip’ as you call it, made me so tired and confused. I didn’t remember correctly. Erin did it because I asked her to. It had gotten so bad I couldn’t do it without her help. At first, she refused, but I kept telling her I couldn’t go on like this, and she finally gave in. She planned everything carefully.” His eyes open wide. “After I drank the tea, Erin said she loved me and we’d be together again soon.”
The woman’s smile falls short of her eyes. “She did it because she loved you?”
“Yes, I’m sure of it,” he says nodding quickly. “So there’s nothing to forgive.” He sniffs and wipes the tears from his face with the backs of his hands. “You were right about the tea. I feel better now,” he says with a smile.
“If you’re certain…”
Ben crosses his arms over his chest and raises his chin. “I’m certain.”
The woman places the cups and teapot back on the tray. “Then it’s time for you to continue on your trip.”
He frowns. “This isn’t the end?”
“This is just a way station for travelers to clear their heads before they move on,” says the woman. She raises her arm and points to a dark blue door behind her. The hundreds upon hundreds of tiny silver stars etched into the dark wood seem to swirl and dance in a spiral.
As he leans closer to examine the gleaming stars, the woman pushes the button on the wall again. There’s a faint noise, like gears grinding together. The blue door seems to melt away, revealing a red door bearing a golden snake eating its own tail.
Ben opens his mouth but the woman cuts him off, saying, “That wasn’t the right door. Come.” She wipes her hands on her flawless apron and gestures for him to follow her.
She reaches for the brass knob and Ben says, “Wait! I don’t understand. Where do the doors go? Heaven? Hell?”
The woman shakes her head. “I couldn’t say.”
He traces the symbol on the door. This seems familiar. “Why wasn’t the blue door the right one?”
“You told me it wasn’t,” she says.
“Huh? What does that mean?”
The woman merely points to the door and waits.
The man sighs. “Will I be able to see Erin someday?”
The woman shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Ben rubs the back of his neck for a moment and says, “It doesn’t matter. I know we’ll be together someday. Not even death can keep us apart.”
The woman raises her eyebrows but says nothing.
He looks into the large mirror next to the door and straightens his glasses and hair. Taking a deep breath, he asks, “May I open the door?”
“You may,” she says stepping back.
He grasps the knob, marveling at the strong grip of his hand on the warm, smooth metal. He pulls open the door and smiles. “Thank you so much for helping me clear my head,” he says as he crosses the threshold and disappears. The door closes behind him with a quiet click.
The woman looks into the mirror, her impassive expression disappearing. Shaking her head, her red lips turn up into a smirk. “She did it for love? Not even death can keep us apart? Such crap.” She smooths back her perfect hair and straightens her immaculate apron. Wiping all expression from her face, she pushes the button again. There’s a click and a hiss as the red door disappears into the wall leaving behind a blank space.
Turning to the serving table, she picks up a silver tray containing a delicate, white porcelain tea set. Setting it on the round table, she looks up at the large clock on the wall and says, “Almost time.” She sets fresh scones on the table and finishes setting everything in order, before sitting down in the chair facing the door with her hands folded in her lap.
The door tinkles as it opens and a thin, middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses steps into the shop. He frowns.
“Have a seat, dear. You must be exhausted from your trip,” says the woman.
On the other side of the large mirror, a woman watches the scene wearily; her eyes are red and bleary and her head aches. She’s lost count of the number of times Ben’s gone into that goddamned teashop. It’s the same every single time. The same woman, the same tea, the same conversation, the same door. “How many more times do I have to watch this?”
The superbly dressed man in the shadows behind her says, “Until your soul is cleansed.”
She sighs. She asked that question a lot when she first arrived, hoping for some concrete milestone that would provide a light at the end of the tunnel, but the answer never changes. Abandon all hope, she thinks. “Right, but why is Ben here? Why does he have to keep doing this?”
“He keeps holding onto lies and false hope, refusing to believe what you did. His soul can’t move on until he accepts that you’re really a monster and forgives you for it.” The man chuckles. “Who knows when that’ll be. He just loves you so damned much.”
Erin grimaces. “I did what I had to do. It was mercy.”
The man leans in and sneers. “Mercy?” he says. “For him? Or for you?”
When she met Ben, he was young and attractive with a business that was taking off. He promised that if she married him, they’d travel the world and then buy a nice house, settle down, and grow old together. Instead, she saw her beautiful dreams shrivel up as her husband shriveled up, old and bedridden before his time. When he couldn’t work anymore, his business collapsed, leaving her to bleed their savings dry. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, he just refused to die, living on past his expected expiration date and drawing out the misery for both of them. Growing tired of waiting for death to show up, she decided to help it along. Then, as her life was finally getting back on track, she died in a freak accident.
“It’s not fair,” she cries. She wants to close her eyes but she can’t; they removed her eyelids long ago.
The man puts his hand on her shoulder and squeezes until her bones begin to grind together. “We’re nothing if not fair here. You’ll get just as much mercy as you gave,” he says with a laugh.