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The Tea Party
My breath is catching in my throat, but I don’t care. I can hear every sound in the night: The creaking of doors opening, feet rushing to me, hands brushing against my shirt, and even the sound of my own footsteps. I can see the spiderwebs caught in my phone’s light, hanging in the empty air. I can see the dark, looming building, only twenty feet from my home, only twenty feet to a door to keep me away from the outside. Only twenty feet and I stop and spin in the midnight air to let the hands pull me in close. Skin presses against cloth and I laugh, wild.
“I have an invite for you.”
“To a tea party?”
Someone else: “Are you coming?” I really hate the feel of hot air in my ear but I agree anyway.
We laugh, crazed, and skip through the spiderwebs, tripping across rocks and dirt, falling, and grinning if we see blood speckling the ground. The world spins and falls around us and builds itself up and collapses and pushes back together and suddenly there’s something warm dripping into my mouth and it isn’t tea and I’ve stopped running and the wind is blowing cold straight through my bones and I might be alone out here-
“Darling, wake up, wake up!” The ecstasy in the voice sounds like a scream of desperation, like nails on a chalkboard, and then suddenly it isn’t. It’s just melted honey and this person here, holding my head between their obnoxiously large hands, is the real world. “Are you okay?” Again, the hot breath twists my stomach and the familiar, yet unidentifiable, acrid smell coming off it doesn’t help untangle knots.
“I think so,” I breathe back, the stank of our combined breath blending into a terrible, dense cloud of carbon dioxide for everyone else to smell.
Again, we trample through the woods, our ungodly shrieks sounding just as hellish as we want them to. We cackle collectively as words fall from our mouths, meaning absolutely nothing and yet everything important all at once. Someone punches me playfully, and we both giggle at the unexpected crack that echoes through the night. We pull each other through bramble and underbrush, tripping and falling in mud as we ride the night like a mighty steed.
Suddenly, we’re all sitting around the table, glassy-eyed as we take in the green-ish glade around us. Not one of us seems fazed to have been nowhere and to now be here, in flickering candlelight and dressed in stifling chiffon. I don’t recall putting this on, its starched lace collar biting at my neck as if it were a teenager hungry for love. They laugh and grin and we are all wearing matching suits, and we are all wearing matching skirts, and we are all having lukewarm tea and molding biscuits and it is all bliss.
“How do you feel about death?” Someone whoops like it’s a catcall.
A ghoulish face looms from the darkness, “Do you take two or three sugars in your tea?”
“I just loooove the stars. I think Cassiopeia is my favorite constellation.” “Someone put whiskey in the tea!” A drunken voice sings out.
Laughter tickles the room, “It was me!” Here we all are, forming life-long bonds somehow, just talking.
Every moment tries to burn its way into my memory, to brand my brain, but it is just as quickly turned to ash and blown away by a sudden chill of wind. It must be the same soul-wrenching breeze as earlier, because it leaves me just as alone and in the dark as the first time, wearing a stiff collar of poison ivy around my neck and a dying coronet around my head.
The same familiar voice calls me back into my reverie, with the same call as before, the same clasping of my cheeks, and this time I don’t mind the warmth of breath. I don’t mind it because it grounds me back to the cacophony of drunken people, all lost inside themselves and all crying about it together.
“You’re so pretty,” a lilt tickles my ear, “I could take you home and box you up and we’d be happy forever.”
My breath catches in my throat again, and this time I do care a little. I sit there while this voice, all mystery and grace and patience, sits there breathing hot air down my neck.
“Isn-” My voice fails me, and I sit there in silence again.
“Isn’t?” The demonic voice coaxes again.
I try to start up my vocal cords, giving them a mental jumpstart, “Isn’t it funny… Isn’t it funny that people can say ‘we’d’ and mean only themselves?”
I feel the snarl develop against my shoulder bone, all bark and bite and waiting to attack, “And isn’t it funny… Isn’t it funny that if you take out just one little apostrophe, ‘we’d’ becomes ‘wed’?”
And I laugh big and loud and cry with everyone else who’s crying about everything else and while I do I get up and run towards those obnoxiously large hands that have already saved me twice. I find them full of someone else, someone else who wants those hands more and maybe even needs them more. So I turn back to the tea party and all I see are people in stiff satin and I sit back down.
“There’s something stirring in your stomach,” I hear whispers of conversation from one person to another, gossip that lights the whole field on fire, glorious, freeing fire.
I feel a hand grasp mine and I whiplash-quick turn to see them, but not before they say, “Dance with me?” and not before we’re already spinning across the grass, our bare feet hoping they don’t stumble on stickers. Or maybe just my feet, I think, as we swoop across the brittle burrs and I cry out and they only grin wider.
We sit at the table and we drink more tea (laced with Benzene and whiskey, if the gossip’ fire wasn’t just fantasy) and we stuff down more of the disgusting moldy biscuits and I’m the only one wondering why we’re even doing this.
“How do you feel about love?” Another deep question runs a deadly undercurrent through conversation.
“Is gasoline deadly?” A monotone man asks with removed curiosity.
Teenage feminine giggles reach out “Would you cry if I died right now?” and were generally unconcerned.
A delighted squeal: “I cut my finger open; look, it’s really oozing now!”
Someone turned to me, “You’re too quiet. Speak up!”
“I- I don’t know what to say,” I remark, all energy swept from me as my bones throb and my feet bleed and terror is finally becoming very real.
“What about a conversation starter?” Their eyes bloom with a deadly fire.
“If you were drowning, a thousand feet downstream in that river,” here, they pause and point at a familiar ribbon of blue that hovers at the edges of our eyes, “What happens next?”
“Well… well, I die,” I answer, my voice blowing away in that reality-ruining wind.
They blink, “You die? That’s it?”
“If I’m in that river… that river is shallow. If I’m in that river, I’m in it to die. And if I’m that far down it, I’ve already drowned a long time ago.”
Suddenly, my cheek is stinging and I can’t seem to process why, “That’s a boring answer. Give me something better!”
“It’s the truth,” I say, softer than before.
And then my cheek is stinging again, and this time I understand why, “Give me a better answer, or you’ll find yourself thousands of feet down that river!” The voice may be quiet, but at the moment, in the heat of the tea party, so loud and roaring, it is screaming and it is everything.
“I.. I would… I would call for help, then, or something... I don’t know. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“WRONG ANSWER!” They shriek, the soft anger seeming to multiply by the time it processes in my brain so that it is a howl to the whole world, a declaration of every way I am wrong.
“You don’t want to be here? Well, I’m here to save you then!”
They reach for me, grabbing my wrists, my neck, my everything, “Okay. I don’t need to live any longer anyway,” I boast, but it is too gentle, too silent, to be heard. Maybe I never even said it. Maybe it is all in my brain anyway.
“Darling? Are you okay?” As I am cradled by those huge hands again, hands I wanted to hate but couldn’t seem to, I reach out for a face, trying to find it through the half-light of the party.
“I’m Charlene. What’s your name?” I ask those hands as they hold me, looking for some sort of personification to give to them besides a voice.
They pull me in, “Darling. I don’t need your name, and you don’t need mine.” I am stifling, dying, stuck, trapped, in this embrace, wanting to cry but unable to find enough air to do so.
They never let go of me, and I am still there, still stuck, still suffocating forever. This might be my end if it weren’t for the party, if it weren’t for the poison that has wormed its way throughout everyone here. As I stand here, held too tight, the whole world collapses around me, going down slowly, going down too fast for me to handle.
“Oh. Charlene. You’re back. You were over there for a while, weren’t you?”
I don’t remember walking back. I don’t remember taking off the poison ivy choker that had already adorned my neck with a rash. I don’t remember setting the clearing on fire. I don’t remember those big hands ever letting me go. I know I am home somehow and that the woods somehow have caught fire. I know I have an awful itch all around my neck and that my arm is broken now. I know that I have stickers stuck all in my feet.
I know that I went to the tea party.
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Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.