The only sounds in the house are the consistent hum of the old deep freeze and Marie shuffling around in the kitchen. The sounds, the movements, the routine, are the same as always.
The soft flick as the kitchen light turns on.
The tchsss tchsss of her house slippers dragging on the kitchen floor; it is so hard for her to step lively at this time of the morning.
The rush and ting of water as she fills the kettle.
It’s still dark out; in early fall the mornings are always like this, and truth be told, Marie likes it this way. She finds the early onset of brightness too jarring in the spring and summer months. She prefers that more gradual ease into light, when the birds start singing even before the sunrise.
The orange dimness of her kitchen light has more to do with fiduciary constraints than choice, but this is one of the few things in her life that aligns itself with her personal preferences. She’d rather not see the grime she can’t seem to remove from the linoleum that is peeling in places to reveal blackish concrete underneath.
She sets the kettle on the stove. The lighter for the gas burners hasn't been working for so long that she doesn’t reckon with the little switch anymore. She lights it with a cigarette lighter. The gas whoomps as the flame grasps and combusts it. In days gone by, she would have revelled in the power of that sound; it meant that she had enough to even pay for gas, but now, she is too far gone to care.
By this time, her eyes have glazed over and her mind has traveled to some far-off place too distant for her to even put in frame. She is never really able to recall exactly where her mind goes. Her thoughts are like a small boat on an endless, empty ocean as deep as it is wide. No matter where that little boat goes, there is never land in sight.
When she returns to the kitchen, through no effort of her own or change in her surroundings, steam is rising from the spout of the kettle.
She shuffles to the other side of the kitchen and opens old cupboard doors. Out and up. There is a special method for this particular door with the faulty hinge. She should really replace it, but then she’ll have to replace the whole cupboard. The decrepit fibreboard is swollen at the edges from waterlogging, and it sheds minuscule fibres whenever it is touched. Removing the hinge will only serve to disintegrate the entire edge.
She retrieves two mugs from the shelf and gives them a cursory rinse.
A ceramic tea-jar sits on the counter. Angela sends the teas every few weeks. Angela doesn’t know much about Marie’s real life. They met online seven months ago, but there are more lies than truths on Marie’s side of the relationship. All the details she presented were fabricated.
But the tea is the only nice thing that Marie has. Amongst the government forms and food stamps, the brick wall of life and the hard place of making one more choice or taking one more step, tea is her safe haven and her salvation. Not being able to afford sugar is okay; tea is meant to be consumed without sweetening anyway.
Marie had sent her a Japanese tea set for her fake birthday. It couldn’t have cost more than sixty dollars, but that is more than Marie will ever be able to spend.
The water comes to a rolling boil, but not hot enough for the kettle to release its shrill scream. Sarah is still sleeping. There is no reason to shock the poor, sickly child awake so ruthlessly. Marie turns a dial and the gas loses its grasp on the heat.
The fire dies.
She pours steaming water into the teacups and swirls the bamboo whisk in one of them to soften the tines, just like she saw on YouTube. She sets the whisk aside and pours off the water, then dries the cups with practiced and private grace. A carefully portioned scoop of green powder is placed in each cup. She prefers the taste with two scoops, but she’s forced to conserve. It’s not as if she can buy more herself.
The liquid schlooloolooop as the hot water pours into the cups couples with the scent of the tea as it rises on curlicues of steam, and the combination is enough to lift the corners of Marie’s lips. As long as she has this, she is living.
This little ritual keeps Marie going. She’ll continue to wake up if she knows she has this to look forward to. In practiced motions, much more suitable for another someone dressed in expensive robes and surrounded by verdant bamboo and perhaps the trickle of a koi pond, Marie brandishes the bamboo whisk and whips the matcha into foaming green.
First her cup, and then Sarah’s.
She gratefully curls her fingers around warm ceramic and breathes in the dream of the bamboo and the koi pond and the other someone that she wishes she could be. But silk is not in the cards for her, so she trudges through narrow passageways, Sarah’s tea in hand. She feels the borders of the strips of linoleum through the soles of her house slippers.
She enters the tiny bedroom at the back. It smells musty in the way only the ill do. She would open a window to air it out, but the last time she did that she could hear the girl shivering, teeth rattling like window panes in an earthquake. The skin of her knee greets the ever-present lumps of the mattress.
“Sarah,” she whispers, gently jostling scrawny shoulders. “Get up, darling, it’s time for morning tea.” Sarah’s threadbare nightgown is massive, swallowing her tiny frame. The white cloth whale and an emaciated Jonah.
Marie doesn’t want to say goodbye, but the sight of Sarah is killing her. This has been a long and thankless journey, bringing neither joy nor meaning to anyone. Sometimes, the futility of providing for this sick child in this sick world just about crushes the life out of her and Marie often finds herself wondering how much longer she can go on.
It will never get better.
But still she perseveres. She coddles Sarah’s narrow frame to her meagre chest. Sarah is awake, but silent. She always is. Even whispers are louder than her reedy voice. At some point in the past few days or months, Sarah lost the ability to hold her skeletal frame up by herself, so Marie props her against the unstable bedhead.
Sarah’s tea is a bit cooler now, so she will be able to drink it.
“That’s it, darling. Just a little more. It will be over soon,” she coos comfortingly as she holds the teacup to cracked lips. Sarah, the dutiful child, drinks willingly. To the best of her ability.
She recounts the days since Sarah came under her care. Since this all began.
She had taken her in for love. A love that had not returned to her. Even so, she waits for him, and knows this is probably the reason she hasn’t been able to bid Sarah adieu.
What if he comes back like he said he would, and Sarah wasn’t there? It has been almost six months, and he has not returned. She has done everything like he asked her to, but he hasn’t reached out to her. She feels like a spirit whose descendants no longer remember to pay rites to.
Sarah only drinks half of the tea. She’s unable to manage more.
Marie takes the cup back to the kitchen. Her tea is cold now so she pours more hot water on it and whisks it again. Angrily this time.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she hisses the self-flagellatory words into the hum and the quiet. She is weak and stupid, and that is why he left her with this burden and hasn’t come back. She’s been unable to commit to any of the four paths she embarked on.
When he brought Sarah to her first, she had protested. ‘No, no, are you crazy?’ had turned into ‘Do you even have a plan for this?’, which had bled into ‘What am I supposed to even do with her?’, which eventually became ‘How long do I have to keep her for?’.
The first few weeks had been almost blissful. If one turned a blind eye to Sarah’s fear-induced quavers, they looked like a family. Then he had gotten frustrated and anxious and angry when things didn’t go to plan.
Then he left.
In the days after his wordless departure, Marie held down the fort. Things were better then. Not much better, but better.
The days turned into weeks and the strain began to set in.
The weeks merged into months and Marie tried the second path. It hadn’t taken much to find Angela, and when she prepared her façade, she told herself that it was just as a precaution. She’d hoped he would come back, all wrath and fists and bluster, because then he would be back. But her conversation with the grieving woman never incited so much as a warning from him.
Then, instead of ceasing her futile efforts, she found herself unable to stay away, drowning in Angela’s guilt and frustrated desperation, until Angela reached the point of resigned acceptance. They turned to tea, the both of them. And then the truth came to light as they bonded.
She will tell him the truth of the matter when he returns, but as it is, she has no way of reaching him. He’s arranged it that way, so that his deeds will be untraceable until the appointed time.
They are both waiting. Him for the right time, and her for him.
The third path is her attempt to make something good of a bad situation. She really tried but now she is vacillating between the third and the fourth paths. On the one hand, she can continue to raise Sarah, and on the other, she can bid the final adieu and escape to some sort of an easier life.
But would it be easier with the weight of Sarah’s ghost on her shoulders?
“I’m trapped, I’m trapped,” Marie blubbers in her shabby kitchen. She knows without even thinking it outright that the tea will never be enough. He will never be enough to cleanse the stain of what she is participating in.
Anything would be better than this.
With shaking hands clutching her nightgown, Marie raises her eyes to the telephone where it is mounted on the wall. Its white plastic casing glooms in the early morning light.
He will be angry but it won’t matter. Nothing matters apart from the fact that she is unable to do this anymore. She deserves this, but poor, sick, innocent Sarah is undeserving.
Maybe she can wait for him elsewhere, in a place where she doesn’t have to shoulder this all on her own. The telephone beckons her silently, and she feels herself weakening to its soundless call. The surroundings of her crumbling house fade from her peripheral vision until only the fifth path remains.
Her mind does that thing again where it drifts, but the faraway place is here.
She can almost see herself, as though through another’s eyes, as she walks a path she has never considered before now because her unwavering desire to wait for him had clouded her vision. Now, the urgency of giving up is overtaking all her senses.
Her skin crawls with need.
She watches her hand reach for the receiver before she puts it to her ear. It’s cool from underuse.
Her fingers dial three numbers.
“911, what is your emergency?”
She hangs up.
Her entire body shakes, and she fights the urge to throw up. She hadn’t expected the call to go through.
“What am I doing? What am I doing?” The words become a mantra, and they eventually remind her that this is the best path, because she is unable to go on and she is too weak for the other four.
She tries again.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I have Sarah… Sarah Golecky,” she hears her voice say. She sounds hysterical, even to herself.
“Who is that, ma’am?” the dispatcher asks. This. This was the horrible truth Angela had revealed.
“He… he kidnapped her, and brought her to me,” she continues. She’s aware now that the entire thing rests on her, but she’s too far gone to give up.
“What is your address, ma’am?” The dispatcher sounds almost bored, and somehow, that is helpful for Marie. She reels off her address. It’s less of an address and more of a location. No one really knows that this house is occupied.
It had been abandoned long ago, just as she had been, but apparently no-one cancelled the phone service.
“What is your name, ma’am?”
“Marie. Marie Fondant.”
“Are you in any immediate danger, Marie? Is Sarah still alive?” the dispatcher asks.
“I don’t know when he’s coming back. Sarah’s alive. I think she’s sick with something.” The relief of telling someone makes her throat close up. Tears make her lose her vision. “Please send someone quick.”
“They’re on their way, ma’am. Please stay on the line,” the dispatcher intones. The dispatcher asks her to confirm her location again.
Marie’s knees tremble underneath her. They knock together, almost hurting from the impact.
“And is there anything dangerous in the house, Marie?”
“No,” Marie almost wails. “It’s just the two of us.” Somehow, putting it into words makes her situation suddenly real.
“Alright Marie, you’re doing great,” the dispatcher says. She doesn’t sound genuine, but that doesn’t matter. The words are enough for Marie to hold on to. No one has told her that in… in ever. “Is Sarah conscious? Is she bleeding from anywhere?”
“She’s conscious. She isn’t bleeding. She’s just so weak. She can’t sit up.”
When the walls finally glow blue and red, Marie’s knees give up. She sits on the floor while the officers yell for her to open up, but she’s used all her energy to make the call, so she’s unable to stand. The receiver falls from her hands and dangles on its curly cord, swaying as if by a gentle breeze.
The officers break the door down.
They rush inside.
One stops to kneel in front of her, and another two disappear into the passageway, calling Sarah’s name. The officer in front of her is talking to her, but she’s unable to make sense of what he is saying. Everything is a blur, and everything sounds filtered by water and cotton.
The paramedics rush in next with a gurney. Marie distantly watches as they hurry Sarah’s prone form out of the house.
Then there is cold metal on her wrists and it’s the ratcheting sound of the handcuffs that jerks her back into herself.
“Come with me, ma’am,” the officer says as he pulls her, not unkindly, to her feet. He ushers her outside, and then the rest of it is a blur of lights and radios and barely-there sunshine. A dizzying trip to the station follows this, and Marie sees everything and nothing of the passing scenery. Her thoughts are like the waves crashing into rocks.
They ask her questions, but she is unaware of her responses.
Maybe this is what they describe as shock. Why is she now in shock? Maybe it’s the fact that she walked the length of the fifth path that surprises her so greatly.
Or perhaps it’s the release of the seemingly immovable pressure that has finally fried her nerves. She’s shaking like a leaf and she doesn’t think she deserves to. After all, no one forced her to do anything.
It is in the interrogation room that the final piece of her bizarre puzzle finally falls into place.
“Who is this man that brought Sarah to you?” the detective asks. This question comes after his having spoken to her about everything and nothing. About food stamps and the hard place and tea. There is no reason to keep his name a secret anymore. She hasn’t even allowed herself to think his name for the past several months for fear of ruining his plans.
“Richard Dickson.” The name spills from her lips. “But people just call him Dickie. He left her with me…” The next words make her heart hurt because she was such a fool to wait for him. Such an idiot for thinking she was worth coming back to. “And then he never came back. He abandoned me.”
The detective’s face takes on a strange expression.
“Richard ‘Dickie’ Dickson?” he says the name, but it’s a request for confirmation. She understands that, so she nods.
“He’s dead. Car accident.”
“When?” The question floats between them.
“About five months ago.” The detective looks almost apologetic. Ironic. Marie retreats into her confusion. It’s the same boat on the endless ocean, but somehow different. She’s unable to process the sheer futility of the past three hundred days.
As they carry her away, cuffed like the criminal she is, she hears the other officers speaking in soft undertones. There are reporters too, and they take her picture with cameras that make rapid, harsh clicks as she passes.
“If she never called, no one would have known. The mother never reported Sarah missing,” she hears one male office murmur.
“Apparently the mother couldn’t manage taking care of her… what kind of a monster-?”
“They got to the kid just in time. Another week and she wouldn’t have made it.”
Marie turns sharply to stare at that officer then.
The relief makes her want to cry.
Another part of her wonders when she will ever make tea again.