That thing I said about writing short stories and posting them every other Friday? TOTALLY HAPPENING STARTING RIGHT
Jenny hands the tea cup to Sophie and tells her, “Don’t drink all of it.”
The cup, a malicious heat-soaking lump of ceramic without a handle, burns Sophie’s fingers immediately and only the horrific thought of ruining the carpet Jenny inherited from her grandmother prevents Sophie from chucking the cup onto the floor. While Sophie searches gingerly for a cooler place to put her fingertips, Jenny fishes out her notebook and opens it to the game she made herself about steampunk fashion design.
The tea, in no apparent hurry to cool off at all, spits plumes of steam from its surface and stops just short of bubbling like some kind of toxic potion in a tiny cauldron. Sophie watches Jenny stick white suspenders onto a crimson dress where they will serve no apparent purpose beside decoration.
“Try a sip now,” Jenny says.
Scrunching her nose, Sophie brings the cup to her lips and tips the bottom until she can feel heat brush her lip. The nerve endings in her skin report a full-scale attack of pain if the liquid advances much farther, but Sophie takes a sip anyway.
She pulls both her lips into her mouth and stamps her feet on the carpet she felt such reverence for a moment ago.
“Well, blow on it first,” Jenny says, smiling down at her notebook.
Sophie resists the potent urge to dump the remains of her molten torture brew right down Jenny’s shirt, but only barely.
Sullen and burned and eighty percent more determined to finish this hellfire tea than follow the evolution of Jenny’s imaginary career in steampunk fashion, Sophie huffs and puffs until the steam cleared away. She gulps the remainder down in two vengefully large mouthfuls of the sweetened stuff.
Halfway into the second, Jenny flings her notebook onto the sofa and waves both hands urgently at her. “Not all of it!” She makes a grab for the cup and negotiates it smoothly from Sophie’s fingers. Clucking her tongue, she peers quickly inside. “Oh. Well. This’ll do.”
Sophie wipes dribbles of tea off her chin with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I don’t have to drink another one, do I? Sorry, I wasn’t thinking about the water—”
“Nah,” Jenny says, “this is fine.”
“Will it work, though? Maybe if I use a towel or something to hold it this time, I can—”
“Shush, I’m doing the thing.”
Sophie manages thirteen seconds silently watching Jenny stare into the cup before the curiosity imp, a very real and very frustrating creature who has set up camp right over the common sense part of her brain, coaxes her into asking more questions.
“How does this work, anyway? Why do I need to drink it for it to work? If I poured the tea down the sink, would it still work?” She warms to the subject even as she senses Jenny’s breath shallowing out with impatience. “What if I poured it in the toilet? Would it still work?”
“Oh my God, if you don’t shut up I’ll pour you in the toilet.”
Sophie locks her lips and tucks the key into the breast pocket of Jenny’s blouse. When Jenny’s expression melts into mere exasperation, Sophie makes an eloquent “go on” gesture and Jenny returns to her tea gunk-gazing. For a minute or so, Jenny turns the cup this way and that, studying the collection of dregs that just look to Sophie like the shape of the sound splat! While Jenny does that, Sophie pets her wounded upper lip and complains quietly about blisters and demon tea.
“I’d never have guessed some of these things about you,” Jenny says, interrupting Sophie’s leaning-into-crazy mumbling.
Sophie lifts her eyebrows and drops her hand into her lap, attention successfully pulled back to the contents of the cup. “Like what?”
“You’ve had, like, sixteen past lives.”
Sophie’s eyes widen. “Really?”
“You made masks in one of them. I can’t tell what country. Somewhere in Europe. You were also a dude.”
Sophie nods along. “I wonder if I still could? Like…is my brain still wired to past lives? Is it just buried under a rock in my brain somewhere? If I meditated or something, maybe—”
“You also,” Jenny says, over-enunciating, “were a chef once. Gourmet stuff.”
Sophie bounces on the sofa, pointing at Jenny vehemently. “Did you know I went to culinary school for a semester?”
Jenny finally looks up from the cup and smiles. “I actually didn’t know that, no.”
Sophie nods. When the silence stretches on and Jenny makes it clear she’s waiting for more, Sophie says, “That’s the end of the thought.”
Jenny swats her shoulder gently, then tips the cup toward herself thoughtfully. “You’re much more thoughtful than you let on,” she says.
Sophie nods as solemnly as she can, trying to evoke a sense of poise and wisdom.
Jenny’s snort tells her that her aim is a little off. “Do you have any questions? There’s a lot of stuff but it’s all happening at me at the same time, if that makes sense. I probably should have asked you a question to start this off so it would focus things.”
“See anything about the future?” Sophie asks, heart tightening.
Jenny thins her lips. “No. But, well.” She makes a sweeping gesture at the silence around them.
“Well, yeah,” Sophie says, her voice curling in on itself and turning soft. “I just meant…after this.”
The wind picks up outside, carrying on it the smell of smoke and a feeling of loose ends tying themselves. Every day, someone new realizes where to go and leaves, all alone. Mothers leave without their children, lovers leave without the person who makes them whole, brothers leave each other behind. Many people swear it won’t happen to them, but it happens to all of them.
Life has continued in an odd facsimile of life. No one works anymore, not for money. People prepare food for others in return for a lesson or two on plumbing, or fuel for the lamps. There are only about three hundred people left in New York City, and there’s no way of knowing how many people are left anywhere else.
Sophie visits Jenny every day, and her visits feel like stage performances of what she was like before the world started to diminish. Today she brought her toothbrush and asked Jenny if she could stay the night. She isn’t planning on leaving. While they sat on the sofa with their backs to the eerily aqua blue sky, Jenny said suddenly, “I never told you this, and now I might not have the opportunity if I wait anymore. Have you ever been to a psychic?”
Sophie had, but she couldn’t tell if there was judgment or not in Jenny’s tone, so she said no. Halfway into Jenny’s explanation of why she’d asked, Sophie interrupted and requested a reading.
Hearing about so much life behind her makes her wish she could retrace it all instead of moving an inch forward.
“It doesn’t end here,” Jenny says.
Jenny shakes her head. “I don’t know what’s next, but the world isn’t ending. It’s just…moving on without us. It’s only happening to humans, remember?”
Sophie nods. Raw fear had simmered down to a constant unpleasant case of nerves about a month ago.
“People are going toward something,” Jenny continues. She’s holding the cup so tightly her fingers under her nail beds are white.
“What if,” Sophie hesitates and runs the theory through her mind once more before she commits it to an audible statement. “What if this is limbo? Life on Earth. What if life is just…proving yourself worthy of something.”
Jenny shrugs. Her shoulders lift, wired tight by stressed muscles, and stands up with the cup still in hand. “I’m going to see if Sudira has anything for dinner. I wonder if I have anything to trade with her. She said she’d throw in junk food if I can miraculously fix her fan.”
Sophie watches her carry the cup into her minuscule kitchen, stung by the dismissal. She unfolds her legs out from under her and gives her body a quick stretch and yawn. Maybe it’s stupid to theorize. She stands up and feels warmth spread through her. Sighing, she takes a step backward toward the window, hungry for more sunlight to soak into her, but when she looks down at the floor, the sunlight is at least half a meter away. She thinks that’s odd until the warmth curls through her veins and even her perpetually cold fingertips and toes.
She knows where to go. Moreover, she knows how to get there.
Jenny is standing in the kitchen doorway, her expression raw and tired, one hand slack on the frame beside her.
“If you get in good with someone on the other side,” she says softly, “ask them to call for me soon.”
Sophie thinks she nods, but maybe she didn’t. She’s halfway down the hallway, in the street, crossing a bridge, retracing her steps.
Between one blink and the next, the world changes.
My brain wants that to be more complete than that, but my brain also wants to sleep, so…it’s done! Huzzah!
Good night, folks!