“Don’t forget to take an umbrella!” I hear my mother’s shrill voice call after me when I exit the front door, but I don’t hesitate, I don’t even look back. I keep walking down the path and through the gate, leaving our front door open for the entire world to enter. But I don’t care, and I want her to know it. Another step in my silent rebellion, an act to keep her as far from me as possible.
I hate the way she braids her hair and the way she always stirs her cup of ‘tea’ 10 times counter-clockwise before taking a sip. I hate how she pretends to care for a couple minutes before slipping back into her alcoholic coma. I hope somebody wanders in, maybe they’ll rescue me. I’m not holding my breath, though. If I were, I would have died years ago.
My feet pound the pavement in rhythm to the music pumping into my ears. Each note that filters through my head transfers down into the soles of my feet, giving me a renewed vigor. The bag slung over my shoulder holds hope contained in the form of classified ads and resumes. I feel energized, unstoppable… I know today is going to be the day when things finally start to look up.
I lift my head, a smile playing across my lips, just in time to see a bolt of lightning flash across the street. The thunder overpowers my ear buds and I feel my body tremble in fear. I have seconds to process what’s happening when the clouds rip in two, sending waves of harsh, cold water crashing around me. I dart into the nearest building, wrenching open the dusty door and collapsing inside. I hear the faint jingle of the bells as I lean against the first thing I come into contact with, my eyes taking forever to adjust to the dim amount of light in the shop.
“Good afternoon missy,” I hear a voice croak, followed by a bark of laughter. “Or rather, should I say bad afternoon. Quite a storm it’s going to be, at least that’s what the weather man said this morning…” Her voice trails off as she steps out from around the back counter. She’s barely over 5 feet tall, her body arched over into a hunch. She looks about 150 years old and I have to resist the urge to turn around walk back out into the storm. I’ve never been one for old people, and this one is as close to the grave as I’ve ever seen one.
She shuffles toward me, her long, beaded shawl dragging behind her on the floor. I can see the path it leaves in the layers of dust. It’s clear that no one has come into this shop for a long time, and it’s been even longer since she’s come out from behind the counter. She keeps coming toward me; I know my face must be betraying every thought I’m having in this moment. I’ve never had a good poker face.
“Come, come… don’t huddle like the door like some church mouse, come into the light dear, so I can see your face…” Her voice loses the heavy croak as she continues to speak, her vocal chords as dusty as the shop itself. She reaches me and takes one of my hands into her leathery ones. I can feel every callous, every flake of skin as it scratches against my own soft palms. I close my eyes, willing this to be a dream. But when I open them again I’ve finally fully adjusted to the soft light in the shop. She peers up into my eyes with barely hidden emotion, and as I look back down at her, it becomes clear the message she is trying to convey.
Loneliness. The hard wrinkles around her eyes, the deep creases in her forehead… every inch of her face silently tells her story to me. I can’t wrench my hand from the tight grip she has on it and with a sigh, I give in, letting my body finally relax. She reaches a hand up and brushes the wet clump of hair from my cheek, tucking it behind my ear… the way a mother would. When she finally steps back and releases my hand, a chilling revelation settles in my shoulders.
It wasn’t a coincidence that led me into this shop… It certainly wasn’t a mistake… I was brought into this shop, at this moment, with this woman, for a reason.
She leads me into the back room, which is just as dusty as the rest of the shop. She motions toward an old wooden chair seated next to a small white table, and I take a seat. I have to fight the urge to get up and wipe the dust from the table. I don’t want to be rude to this woman in, what I realized quickly, is her home. She puts on a kettle of water and busies herself around the kitchen, hunting for two cups and some spoons. I watch her, still slightly on edge, not allowing myself to relax. My knees begin to bounce as my anxiety builds… she keeps slowly moving back and forth, clearly unable to find what she’s looking for.
“Here, let me.” I jump up, scurrying over and opening the cupboards on top, that are out of her reach. The second door reveals old, delicate china cups, with beautiful floral patterns.
“Are these alright?” I ask, holding out one so that she can see it. She nods, smiling just enough to show her slightly crooked teeth. I can’t help it, I smile back, pulling the second cup from the cupboard and setting it on the counter. She hands me two tea bags and shuffles over to the chair I was just sitting in. She sits down slowly, giving her body time to adjust to the new position. I stand there, one eye brow raised in inquiry as I watch her. She just smirks and motions to the kettle as it begins to whistle.
I prepare the cups of tea quickly, letting the bags steep as I carry them over to the table. I set one cup, a beautiful pink and purple pattern, in front of her before sitting down across from her, my own blue and yellow cup held tightly in my hand. I set the cup down gently on the table top, watching as the base makes a groove in the dust. I have to will the grimace to stay off my face, pulling my horrible poker face up with desperation.
“Do you take your tea with sugar?” I try to keep my mind off of the filth that covers her home, intent on peppering her with questions.
“Oh good heavens, no. You don’t ruin this tea with sugar!” She admonishes me, shaking her spoon at me. She pulls her tea bag from the cup, wrapping the string around the bag on the spoon, the last bits of flavor dripping into the cup. She sets the spoon on the filthy table, and I can feel words rise in my throat like bile. I fight them down as I take out my own tea bag, making it a point to hold onto the spoon when I’m drinking the tea, and resting it against the rim when I’m not.
We sit in a comfortable silence while time stretches on, taking turns sipping our tea. I can feel my clothes begin to dry in the musty air of her home, stiffening slightly. I can feel heat begin to crawl over my body like a second skin, and I begin to fidget in my chair. She notices, her eyes perceptive and wise from her many years. She sets her cup down and reaches her hand forward, cupping mine against the table. I can feel my fingertips slide through the dust, and I close my eyes out of disgust.
“Tell me what’s eating you up child… what is it that’s swallowing you whole?” My eyes snap open and I look at her, really look at her for the first time. I can feel compassion coming off of her in waves, the gentle caress of her hand causing my whole body to collapse into sobs.
I stayed in that shop, with Elanor, all day. I told her things I hadn’t told any one before. She held me while I cried, her strength amazing me as she rocked me back and forth on the floor. I watched as the motion stirred the dust bunnies, but for the first time since I stepped into her store, I didn’t care. She cooked a simple dinner for the both of us, and when we were finished I washed the dishes for her while she slept in her chair. When I finished, I put on another kettle of water and sat down across from her, this time reaching across the table and taking her weathered hands into my own.
“Elanor, wake up… Let’s have another cup of tea.” The softness of my voice surprised me, and clearly her as well, because I saw one gentle tear slip from the corner of her eye. She smiled at me, and this time got up to pull the tea cups out of the dish drainer. She brought the steaming hot cups over a few minutes later, this time setting the pink and purple pattern in front of me.
“That was my granddaughter’s favorite cup…” Her voice trailed off, and I knew without her having to finish the story what had happened. I captured her hand in my own again, and we sat like that, drinking our tea without speaking. She finished her tea before me, setting her cup down and stealing her hand from my own. She sat back, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She looked at me for a long time, almost as if she was studying me, before getting up and heading into another room. I leaned back in my chair, drinking the last drops of my tea before grabbing both cups and heading for the sink. As I washed the cups, I watched the white soap suds swirl in the sink, and my thoughts were instantly drawn back to my home and what awaited me when I got there. I felt the beginning of tears prick at the corners of my eyes, threatening to spill as my mind continued to wander on its dangerous path.
Before the first drop could fall, Elanor shuffled back into the kitchen and looked at me as I stood at her sink. She motioned for me to sit down with her once more at the table, so I deposited both cups in the dish drainer again and headed back. I sat down, my back straight up as I took a good look at her face. She looked happy, even over joyed, and I had no idea why. I was nervous, but at the same time, I felt excitement playing in the back of my mind. I was about to open my mouth to speak, when she pulled her hand from her lap and put an old, worn key on the table.
“Stay with me.” She didn’t need to say anymore. I sat there in shock, with every emotion I was feeling playing across my face, for 5 minutes. She pushed the key forward, carving a line in the dust. She watched me hesitate again, my whole body shaking in shock. She let a warm smile stretch across her face, picking up the key and grabbing my hand. She pressed it into my palm, the cool metal of the key stinging the fire that raged on my skin. She closed my fingers into a fist and held tightly onto my hand, her strength once again amazing me.
“It wasn’t a question, dear. It was a command. As you can tell, I’m clearly in need of some assistance here. Stay. With. Me. Please.” Her voice shook a little and I knew I couldn’t say no. I nodded my head silently, the tears from earlier now spilling down my cheeks without a sound. But this time, they weren’t tears of sadness or fear, but rather, for the first time in my life, tears of joy.
It was sunny when you left home, so you didn’t take an umbrella. An hour later, you’re caught in a torrential downpour. You run into the first store you can find — it happens to be a dark, slightly shabby antique store, full of old artifacts, books, and dust. The shop’s ancient proprietor walks out of the back room to greet you. Tell us what happens next!