Having afternoon tea at midnight wasn’t a novel idea to Tabitha. Since graduating from university and pursuing the field of gallberry research, she and her co-worker Maggie O’Foley have made it a weekly tradition. Maggie has the stereotypical personality of a scientist. Exacting and precise. Having tea was an event she took as seriously as any other, so when the clock struck twelve, Tabitha wasn’t surprised to hear a knock at the door.
“Just a second” Tabitha shouted, balancing the tray of cookies in one hand. “I’ll be right there.” Upon opening the door, she was hit with the smell of the ocean.
“It’s good to see you Tabitha” Maggie said, stepping in. Behind her, sea water dripped onto the hardwood floor.
“Me too” Tabitha said. “Can I take your coat?”
“Sure, thank you” she said, handing her the soaking wet trench coat. Tabitha cringed but kept her polite smile pasted on her face. Cleaning up the puddles of water was the only bad thing about seeing Maggie every week.
“Wow. As usual, your cooking skills simply are amazing” Maggie said as she sampled one of the cookies on the table.
“I’m glad you think so,” Tabitha replied. “I’ve infused them with gallberry essence”
“Speaking of that” Maggie started, “How is the research going” Tabitha paused and watched as a fly landed on the cookie Maggie was holding. She didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s alright” Tabitha said, turning to look out the screened windows and into the distance. The full moon cast a ray of light across the ocean, but it was hard to see since there were so many flies covering the screens. Flies were beings that coexisted among the dead and seemed to follow them wherever they went.
“Just alright?” Maggie asked. She bit down on the cookie and the fly flew away.
“Well, the ocean tides haven't been in rhyme for a while, so it’s been hard to even grow any gallberry plants nowadays.” Maggie frowned.
“That's the thing,” Maggie replied. “If there were a way to grow night blooming gallberries away from the ocean, you could make considerable progress in your research” Maggie said.
“See there's a bit of a problem with that.”
“With What?” Maggie demanded.
“The research. Our budget has been cut.”
“By how much” Maggie asked.
“A considerable amount.”
“Tabitha,” Maggie said, leaning forward. “Tell me.”
“What?” Maggie exclaimed. She dropped her cookie. “How could this happen?”
“There’s no demand from investors for research anymore. Simply put, we’ve been replaced.”
“By who?” Maggie still seemed dumbfounded.
“Some graduate student from one of the elite universities has come up with a chemical component that can replace the effects of gallberry essence.”
“Nothing can replace galberries” Maggie shouted. “How could they do this to us? We sacrificed everything for this.” Tabitha shrunk back into her chair. Seeing Maggie, who was usually calm and collected, lose her temper was terrifying.
“What about the university? They have our backs, right?”
“ I contacted them, but they aren’t answering my emails.”
“What about Professor Splinterson? He has always supported us.”
“The university let him go. I’m pretty sure they don’t even have any more classes about gallberries.”
“But you could’ve advocated for us. I mean, how could you let this happen. You know the benefits of gallberries better than anyone. There's no way some college kid’s little potion can replace them.”
“It can. I even tried it myself. It's cheaper too. Like a lot cheaper. If the investors aren't interested there's nothing I can do.” Maggie glared at Tabitha.
“Do you remember the day I died” Maggie said. Tabitha nodded her head while looking down at her manicured fingernails.
“We were trying to get the last gallberries of the day” Maggie started, “I was reaching to get one that was growing on the underside of the cliff when the ground beneath me suddenly crumbled away. Then I fell into the ocean. It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me.” Tabitha felt guilty. Maggie had made the ultimate sacrifice for their research but it ended up not meaning a thing in the world of investors.
“Maggie I’m sorry” Tabitha said with sincerity. Maggie was silent. Then she let out a sigh and looked at Tabitha.
“Well I do have something that may help.”
“What is it” Tabitha asked.
“It’s a bit of a trump card. Well the research and data hasn’t been solidified but there is something else you should know about gallberries. Another one of their special properties” Tabitha waited, drowning in curiosity.
“Gallberries can open portals to the other world”
The other world?” Tabitha asked.
“It’s how I’ve been visiting you every week.” Maggie said. “Usually, portals don’t open unless there’s a full moon and even then they can be finicky. But with gallberries…,” Maggie reached into her pocket, “You can go whenever you want,” Maggie threw the gallberries on the table. Like firecrackers, the gallberries exploded and in their place was a shimmering purple screen. It looked like an opaque curtain and Tabitha could still see Maggie’s face on the other side.
“Go ahead,” Maggie said. “Try it.” Tabitha reached her head into the portal and was met with the scene of an idyllic forest. Alpine trees surrounded her and the sky above was a bloody red. Just when she was going to pull her feet in, she felt Maggie grab her ankle.
“Wait!” she said. “Once you’re in there, there is no coming out.” Maggie pulled her out of the portal and by the time she realized what had happened, the portal was gone. Tabitha stood up but was attacked with a spell of dizziness.
“What’s happening to me” Tabitha asked.
“Well, I only wanted you to look inside but it seems like you got a little out of hand” Maggie said.
“What do you mean?” Tabitha asked. “I was only inside for a second”
“More like a half an hour. Time flies differently in there. If you had your whole body in, a minute there would have been like an hour in this world” That had been a close call. Tabitha looked down at her hands and slowly regained her footing.
“Well now you have something to work with” Maggie said. “I don’t know what doors this will open but it will certainly do something” Maggie stood up and grabbed the remaining berries on the table.
“Well the sun is coming up soon so I’d better get going” Tabitha walked Maggie to the door.
“You know, I’m not really mad at you for what happened” Maggie said. “But..” Tabitha held her breath.
“I really hope you can save our research” she said, walking out the door.
“I will!'' Tabitha yelled out, but Maggie had already disappeared into the night. Tabitha walked back inside and sat down at the abandoned tea party. The flies were all gone now and Tabitha could clearly see the moon sinking down into the sky. It would be morning soon. She brought out the mop and cleaned up all the salt water before putting away all the china and sweets. She walked back to the table but felt something under her foot. On the floor was a single gallberry.
“Don’t worry Maggie” Tabitha said, rolling it between her fingers. “Gallberries are going to be there next big thing.” Tabitha threw the berry onto the table and watched as it exploded into shimmering purple light. Then, she grabbed a cookie before stepping in again.