The Tea-rex Mug

Submitted into Contest #128 in response to: Set your story in a tea house.... view prompt

2 comments

Fantasy Mystery Science Fiction

Carl stared into the murky depths of his mug as he sat at the bar. Since he became an adult, he had always been a coffee person. He bought into the stereotype that it was a drink for a strong person. The strong bitter taste and the caffeine surge were precisely what he needed to start a new day. After all, life itself was bitter, and the drink seemed a perfect accompaniment to it. Finally, to this day, hardly anyone on this earth could argue that few things matched the fragrant aroma of a freshly made cup of coffee. Pair that scent with a single sip that could warm your body during a cold winter day, and nothing could match it. However, even with thinking all of this, what Carl stared at wasn’t coffee.

It was tea.

Truthfully, he was never much of a tea drinker. It wasn’t like he hated tea, but the type of tea he grew up with came with a twist of lemon, a couple of ice cubes, and a heaping helping of sugar that always took a person one step closer to diabetes.

There were rare instances when he chose a cup of tea over coffee. Let alone times where he ventured to make it himself. Yet at this moment, he found his fingers curled around his mug; the mug itself radiated a soothing heat that warmed his soul. Its fragrance met his nose, and he found hints of peppermint that calmed his mind, and a smile naturally came to him. He lifted the cup to his mouth, taking one tentative sip only to sigh in bliss.

Across from the bar, he saw shelves filled with jars containing tea leaves. There was an entire shelf dedicated to black tea. They were in alphabetical order and labeled by their country of origin. The other shelves had tea that Carl recognized, such as oolong, matcha, and green tea, but there were some that he didn’t, let alone dare to pronounce. On the bottom shelf lay a line of decorative mugs with catching phrases on them like “Positivi-tea” or “You’re tea-rific.” Personally, he enjoyed his mug, which said: “Tea-rex.” The mug showed a tea bag with cartoonish teeth and tiny claws chasing a small stick figure.

The bar was well worn with a fine polish that gave the environment a more at-home feeling. The teahouse clamored with conversation and was lively. It seemed a natural location where people could just come to unwind, and it was obviously fairly popular.

With all this said, there was only one immediate problem.

Carl had no idea where he was.

He felt like he should panic but decided it wouldn’t be the best thing to do with so many prying eyes about. Instead, he decided to take another sip from his tea, relax, and try to remember how he arrived at the teahouse.

Strangely, nothing came to him.

Next, he tried to remember the past hour of his life and found that the last thing he could remember was going to bed the previous night. He remembered stripping down to his boxers before tucking himself in, yet here he sat with a somewhat messy suit looking unemployed.

“What in the world is going on?” Carl asked as he took another drink from his cup and placed it on the counter. As he did, he noticed the faint outlines of lettering at the bottom of his mug. The words were obscured due to the tint of the tea. Carl took one last swig from the mug and placed it back on the bar.

Carl’s eyes widened as he read the message: “You’ve been poisoned.”

Carl’s heart dropped, and he felt his body go cold as if the hand of death touched his shoulder. He stared at the words as if they were in a foreign language, refusing to believe them.

What the hell? Why would someone poison me? I’ve never done anything to anyone before! Well, I guess that might not be necessarily true, but not something so wrong to the point where someone would want to poison me!

At that moment, someone sat next to him. She gave him a quizzical look as he stared at his mug while taking deep breaths as if he was hyperventilating. Instead of asking if he was okay, she leaned over the counter and looked into his mug. She grimaced and said sympathetically, “Oof, tough luck pal. Looks like you got the poisoned one.”

“Poisoned one?” Carl asked disbelievingly.

The woman who now wore a mischievous grin stared at him with a twinkle in her eye. “Yup, the manager poisons one mug a month at random. It’s kinda the theme of his place.”

Carl felt his heart drop as he felt himself become nauseated.

Oh god, is the poison beginning to take effect? he thought as his stomach pondered about emptying its contents on the bar’s counter.

“What kind of psychopath would poison someone’s tea?” Carl asked as he felt himself going into a rage.

“Well, he balances it out,” she said as she carried on as if the circumstances of his dilemma were the most natural thing in the world. “There is also a mug that congratulates you for winning a hundred dollars. Worth it if you ask me.”

Carl’s face contorted as he struggled to form the words about the ridiculous nature of the situation. All the while, the woman’s smile only grew wider and wider. It was at this moment that he realized that he was being played. His heart calmed, and he gave the stranger a look as if he wanted to strangle her.

Noticing that he was now staring daggers at her, she reached for the mug that had appeared at her side, took a sip, and smiled at him over the rim of her drink. “Finally got there, did you?”

Carl watched her as she continued to sip the mug in her hands. It was the first time he had gotten a good look at her. She had a pixie-cut hairstyle that matched her playful personality to a tee. It was a deep auburn brown with blonde highlights at the tips. She wore a loose t-shirt that hung off one of how shoulders and a pair of jeans with more rips than fabric.

Carl ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “Very funny. I suppose you make a habit of playing pranks on people?”

“I have to get joy out of my job somehow,” she said as she traced her finger around the rim of her mug.

“Oh, it’s your job to annoy random strangers at teahouses, is it?” Carl asked in an annoyed tone.

“No,” the woman said as she glanced up at him. “It’s my job to tell random strangers that they’re dead. I find it best to tell them while opening up with a joke.”

Carl stared at her in utter bewilderment. The statement was so random and outlandish that he couldn’t help but ask, “Excuse me? Care to repeat that?”

The woman pushed another mug of tea his way. It was the same mug he had before, but she somehow filled it without him noticing. She took in one sigh and nodded. “You died. You kicked the bucket. You’re pushing up daisies, although you aren’t buried yet, so I guess that isn’t the best analogy. Either way, the one thing that we have to iron out is that you are dead as doornails…but are doornails ever really alive? I mean…”

“Please stop,” Carl said, trying to absorb the ridiculousness of this woman.

“Oh, right, sorry,” she said, slightly abashed while pointing at him while holding onto her mug. She winked at him. “Still dead, though.”

Carl scoffed. “Yeah, whatever.”

“Have you not noticed yet?” she asked.

“Have I noticed what?”

The woman shook her head as if he was inconveniencing her somehow and motioned around them. “Look around at the people here. See anything that catches your eye?”

Carl looked at the strange woman, who continued to nurse her drink, and he decided to play along. It was true he didn’t know how he ended up in the teahouse, but he wasn’t going to believe for a second that he was dead.

He shifted his attention to a couple sitting at a table behind him. From their animated body movements and the tone of their voices, they were obviously having a lively conversation with each other. However, it didn’t take long to notice what the mysterious woman was getting at.

They had no faces.

It was as if each face was covered in a strange fog, and the longer he stared at it, the denser the fog became. Even their bodies had an ethereal way about them, making it seem like they weren’t truly there.

Carl felt his heart skip a beat, and he frantically looked at each patron of the teahouse, each one the same. The only people with living, breathing bodies in this place were himself and his mysterious stranger.

He turned his body to the bar, dumbstruck. He tried to gather his senses, but before he could, a hand was shoved in his face.

The woman grinned up at him and said joyfully, “I’m Luna. Nice to meet you, Carl. And welcome to the afterlife!”

 “It can’t be,” Carl whimpered as his hand grasped for the mug ignoring her attempt at a handshake. The mug was still warm. If he was truly dead, why would he still have all his senses? He even took a tentative sniff of his tea to ensure that he could still smell the peppermint.

 “The feeling of how that should feel, smell, and taste is imprinted on your soul,” said Luna reading his thoughts. “The tea itself exists in a manner that would specifically soothe you. Out of curiosity, what does it taste like?”

“It’s black tea with peppermint,” said Carl taking a quick sip to make sure he could still taste it.

“Nice, I love peppermint,” said Luna joyfully. “Although, I’m more of a green tea fan myself. Either way, we aren’t going to get anywhere until you believe that you are now sleeping with the fishes.”

Luna placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and once again motioned the shadow figures around them. “You see these people? They’re drinking, having a good time, but not a single one has batted an eye at us yet. You’d think at least one of them would steal a glance at the two weirdos talking about you being dead.”

She motioned to a group that opened the door to an eruption of noise that consisted of the clamoring of foot traffic and the hum of car engines. “Look over there, to both you and me; this place is real. However, have you thought about what exists outside those doors? Why don't you go on and take a peek?”

Carl eyed Luna suspiciously, but a simple solution came to him. He’d play along, but if nothing seemed out of the ordinary, he’d keep on walking and not look back.

Carl stood up from his barstool, walked over to the entrance of the teahouse, pulled open the door, and even took a preemptive step outside as if it would lead to his freedom. However, he halted his foot midair as he stared outside the door.

He could hear the bustling of life outside the door. The laughing of children, the loud obscenities that came naturally with New York traffic, and even the siren of an ambulance that just roared by, but he couldn’t see any of it. Carl only saw a white void that spanned endlessly, no matter where his eyes wandered.

Carl felt the words come out of his mouth before he even thought them, “What would happen if I fell into that?”

Carl didn’t look back to where Luna sat on the bar, but he could feel her impish grin as she stared at him. “Funny thing, that’s exactly what we are here to talk about. Although to answer your question, if you step outside that door, you’ll meet the end. A step outside that door means that you’ll move on from your life, but between you and me, I always want to know what I’m stepping into before I do it.”

Luna moved her hand over to his stool and lightly patted it. “Come on now; don’t be shy.”

Tentatively, Carl moved over to the stool and sat down. “Why a teahouse out of all places?”

Luna shrugged. “First, I have to tell you that I’m not an angel or a demon. I’m just a guide to help you on your merry way. I guess it’s more accurate to call myself a shepherd while we’ll call you a lost sheep that I’m trying to guide home. Thus, as your shepherd, I get to decide where we have our chat and how we have it. Shepherds choose a location based on the imprint of their client’s soul. Someplace that would make them feel comfortable. People tend to take the news better that way.”

“My question is the same,” Carl said, still confused. “I’ve never been much of a tea drinker, so why did you choose a teahouse? Wouldn’t it make more sense to choose a coffee shop instead?

Luna’s face twisted in disgust, and she stuck out her tongue. “Because I hate coffee! It’s too bitter! I thought this place would be a good middle ground.”

After making her declaration, Luna took a satisfying sip of her tea and sighed in content.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Carl said agitatedly. “This is all about you.”

“Don’t be like that,” Luna said with an unabashed grin. “You’ve already cashed in all your chips. You might as well relax and see how this will play out.”

“And how is this going to play out?” Carl asked, now becoming nervous. Like everyone, he’d thought about the afterlife. He wasn’t an atheist, but by no means was he religious.

He feared death.

The mere thought of there being nothing out there after he died shook his very soul.

If anything, his current situation was comforting. With him simply sitting in the teahouse, it told him something was out there. That death wasn’t necessarily the end.

Luna cleared her throat and snapped her fingers. He found that his mug filled with tea again, and she began speaking, “First, I need to clarify something. When I said that you were dead, I might have overembellished slightly. You see, you are currently flatlined on an ambulance after having a heart attack. Your girlfriend found you and immediately called 911.”

“You are experiencing what people call that glimpse of light after nearly dying,” she explained. She then held up her hand and stuck up three fingers. “You have three options. First, you can return to your life no questions asked. Your memories of this meeting will be wiped and you'll live in ignorant bliss. Second, you reincarnate and start a new life with no memories of your previous life. Lastly, your soul can be judged and you get to move on to the afterlife. What matters is your intent. If you make a decision and then take a step out that door, that will be your destination.”

“Do you know where I’ll go if my soul gets judged?” asked Carl as his mind panicked while trying to determine if he was a good enough person to get into heaven or not.

Luna shrugged. “I don't know. I’m not the judge, Carl. I’m only the guide. I have no idea where you’ll go. It’s the same with reincarnating. It’s a roll of the dice. It’s only fair if we don’t play favorites. Not everyone can be a billionaire playboy philanthropist. Don’t worry; you’ll still be human. You won’t reincarnate as a sea urchin or something like that.”

A sea urchin? Carl wanted to ask why she picked that of all things, but knowing Luna at this juncture, it would probably just derail the conversation. However, Carl still had one more question, and he asked it solemnly, “Why give anyone a choice? If a person has a chance to continue their life, why don’t you let them play it out until the end?”

Luna’s face saddened. “Because life is hard. Some people find life to be an inescapable hell itself. If someone like myself offers them a way out, they’ll jump at it. They’d rather be judged than give life another chance. For those people, this is a gift…a mercy. Everyone has a choice to make, and though I can try to guide you to an answer, at the end of the day, the choice is yours alone.”

Carl opened his mouth as if he was about to ask a question, but he closed it. Truthfully, he knew which path he was going to choose.

Luna gave him a gentle smile. “It was that simple for you, huh?”

Carl nodded as he headed to the door as if it was beckoning him. The exit was no longer frightening now that he had his choice, but before he left, he turned and gave Luna some parting words, “A piece of advice, I liked the teahouse, but don’t start a conversation with telling people that you poisoned them.”

Luna gave one her tea one last sip as Carl left the teahouse. As he took that step, his body began to fade away and the teahouse faded away with him as it was a place made just for him. Even her appearance began to fade, one she made for him, but still, she watched as his soul drifted away toward its next destination, gave a Cheshire grin, and whispered, “The thing about that joke, Carl, it’s one I chose just for you.” 


January 11, 2022 03:41

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2 comments

Patrick Borosky
13:28 Jan 20, 2022

Thank you for the kind comment. I really appreciate the feedback! With such an open-ended prompt, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to with it :)

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Hannah Barrett
02:10 Jan 20, 2022

Such a cool, creative take on the prompt, Patrick. Really strong dialogue. By the end of this short story, I felt like I really knew your characters, particularly Luna. I loved all the euphemisms for death she rattled off - part and parcel with being a good postmortem guide, right? I really, really enjoyed this. Thanks for the great read!

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