Mao inhaled the citrusy scent of the lush tea plantations of Hangzhou as the steam from the old teapot began to rise.
He was reminded of the time his father had taken him there as a child of only eight years.
“You shall never need to work like them, son. Your hands will stay clean and your back will stay strong. But you must work to keep them there for as long as possible. Make sure they perform their duties. An inquisitive mind in a peasant is a great danger. Always remember that.”
He remembered watching their wide-brimmed hats bobbing up and down as they tended to the plants. He had laughed and told his father they had looked like large insects hovering above the leaves. His father had just nodded and then promptly posed for a photograph with an elder from the village.
Now as he delicately placed his thumb and forefinger on the rim of the teacup and placed it on the serving board, he erased that vision from his mind. It wouldn’t do him well to think of them now.
“Tea is served, Mr Carlson. Please,” he gestured with a wave of hand for his guest to take the first sip. He remembered doing the same thing decades ago with his father when he had refused to obey an order to stay away from the peasant children. He’d been curious about their street games and had dared to ask them if he could play too.
Tea was a peace offering. An apology. He had owed it to his father then and he had finally realised that he owed it to Mr Carlson now.
“I see you enjoy it, old friend,” Mao smiled, noting how the man opposite him lifted a finger and tapped the sides of the cup. A sign of appreciation. He was surprised the man knew of the customary response. They were off to a great start. Perhaps this would be the end of his misery.
“It is mighty good of you to visit me today. I hope the journey was an easy one,” Mao said, his strong voice reverberating off of the timber walls. His father had always told him to speak without hesitation. Even if the words were a lie. “Never allow the words to pass your lips if they are not strong and defined. The people will pounce on that and see it as weakness.”
“It certainly was not, Mr Liu,” his guest smiled. Mao thought for a moment that he saw fangs.
“I trust you understand why I’m here though?”
Mao lifted his own teacup to his lips and allowed the hot liquid to slowly coat his tongue. He enjoyed the sting of it. It warmed his insides pleasantly as he finally answered the question.
“Yes, I assume for the same purpose as last time.”
The guest nodded and a crease appeared above his forehead.
“They’re all gone, Mao.”
Mao’s back bristled instantly at the use of his first name. The drop in formality angered him. The nerve.
“Of course they are, Mr Carlson. We’ve been over this before. They didn’t stand a chance.” The words were fired at his guest like bullets. Aiming to wound.
But they missed their target completely as Carlson said, “And it’s your fault.”
Mao felt the tea inside his stomach begin to bubble and boil inside him again.
He took a deep breath, inhaled the scent of the mountain plantations, and smiled.
“They were casualties in a necessary war. I’ve told you this.”
Mr Carlson’s eyes dipped down to the teapot in the centre of the table. The crease in his brow grew more defined.
“I don’t think you understand, Mao. Everyone is gone. Everyone you’ve ever known.”
Mao thought of his father. The man who had passed the duties of leadership onto him. The man who had passed away right when the effects of the war began to show signs of becoming irreversible.
He thought of his mother. She was timid, weak. His father had treated her just like another of the servants that bustled around the house completing domestic duties. She had little to do with Mao’s upbringing and as a result he grew distant and resentful of her. She would have died with the rest of them. There’s no doubt about it.
He thought of the people. Their faces ghostly and grey, trying in vain to prevent the spread of death with cheap face masks. But death was already inside them. It was there in the black pits of their eyes and lungs.
Mr Carlson was right about one thing. Everyone was gone. But Mao knew that already. Why did he always insist on repeating this fact?
“Do you understand now what it’s like to be alone, Mao?”
The question was absurd and he refused to dignify it with an answer.
“...As in truly alone?”
Mao took another sip of his tea to prevent an outburst of anger. He was not used to people speaking to him like this. He hated the look of pity on the man’s face. Never in his life had he been on the receiving end of such a look.
Mao closed his eyes momentarily, tasted the tea leaves, and pictured the lush green hills, the sound of leaves rustling, the warmth of the morning sun. It had been a long time since he’d seen the plantations or any greenery for that matter.
“But you defeated us. You won. Was it worth it?”
Mao opened his eyes and fixed his guest with a dazzling smile.
“I honoured my country. My father’s wishes. I led with an iron fist, yes, but I did what needed to be done. Your country’s defences forced my hand.”
Mr Carlson scoffed and ran a hand over his face, pulling down the skin on the sides of his cheekbones. He looked momentarily like a melted wax figure.
“Your solution to our opposition was in one word - devilish! You had your men create a virus that you knew would have horrifying consequences. But you didn’t anticipate just how out of control it would get, did you?”
Mr Carlson’s mouth curled into a snarl. So there are fangs there after all.
“You killed everyone, Mao. Everyone! Nobody is alive! Don’t you understand that?”
Mao lifted a finger and pointed it at Mr Carlson.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that,” he spat.
Mr Carlson leant forward, bumping the table with his knees in the process and causing the teacups to jingle as they struggled to keep their balance.
Mao could feel the old man’s breath, strangely cold in his face. It smelt like decaying leaves and sewerage.
His nose curled at the nostrils but he refused to move backwards.
“You’ll die a lonely, miserable, despicable old man. And I’ll be here to see to it. Enjoy your empty planet. It compliments your soul nicely.”
Mao slammed his teacup onto the table where it shattered.
“It had to be done!” he shouted.
Mr Carlson surveyed the purple-faced man sitting opposite him as if he were an ugly stain on the wall.
Mao felt the hot tea from the shattered cup begin to drip on his silk slippers.
Drip... drip... drip.
For a while it was the only sound to be heard in the dimly lit room.
The droplets were soon joined by more, the silver silk darkening under their touch. But this time they came from another source.
Mao sniffed and wiped his cheeks.
“Why do you haunt me like this?” he whispered.
Mr Carlson’s eyes shone with that same darkness he had seen in the peasants as they neared death. Only in Carlson’s he saw The Reaper himself, reaching outwards. Waiting to take Mao to the grave.
Mr Carlson’s skin began to turn grey and Mao could suddenly see the dark walls merge with his features.
“No! Don’t you leave like this again! I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry!”
Mr Carlson’s face continued to fade and Mao could barely make out his face as his next words were whispered.
“See you again soon, old friend.”
Mao sat, alone again.