For some time, I’ve been reusing my tea leaves—waiting patiently until the spent remnants barely tinted or flavored the hot water before moving on to a fresh scoop. Sadly, this evening’s bedtime cup reached that woefully uncivilized nadir. While I knew these leaves were nearly exhausted, there was just enough taste to maintain the emotional comfort of my nightly ritual and temporarily ease the now persistent sharp pangs in my abdomen. Relaxed and burrowed under my puffy down duvet, I drifted off to sleep smiling—knowing my morning would begin in the kitchen, opening the tea tin, inhaling the strong, fresh aroma, and adding a scoop of rich, flavorful leaves to my strainer. Tomorrow’s cup of tea would be heaven.
This morning’s cup of fresh, delicious tea will have to wait. The stabbing stomach pains had returned and woke me early—a full half hour before four—and I quickly noted the dark dampness on my sheets. My first move was not to the kitchen but to my bathroom. The bleeding had started again.
The first time it had happened—a month ago-- I thought it the poor quality of my dwindling rations—tinned foodstuffs put up well before the island was consciously isolated from the rest of the world. We were forced to start consuming that meager stockpile when the lighting and irrigation systems in the hydroponics chamber failed ten months ago. A month later, I realized that emergency supply was limited and calculated and recalculated how to make it last for our foreseeable lifetimes. I concluded we could only eat one meal a day. The bleeding--I thought—was just a gastrointestinal rebellion—cells and organs finally rising up and protesting the change in the quality and quantity of the food I’d been consuming. But when firm lumps appeared on my bloated abdomen a few days later I knew something more serious was amiss. The best I could find in the medical database was a description of colorectal cancer that could be spreading into my abdominal cavity.
After cleaning myself up, I put on a fresh robe and stripped my bed. I hugged the wall—lightheaded—as I shuffled my way to the kitchen and put on a pot of water. There was nothing more to do for my condition. The last doctor at the facility had died eight years ago and the last of the stockpiled medicines ran out five years after that. Any potentially helpful herbs shriveled and died with the rest of the plants in the hydroponics chamber. My morning and evening cups of tea were my only comfort—my only remaining pleasure.
In the kitchen, I unceremoniously tapped the open tea strainer and emptied its depleted detritus into the kitchen rubbish chute. I smiled in anticipation--at the simple pleasure of a strong, fresh cup of tea, and reached to the eye-level shelf for what I knew was the last tin. My shaking hand lingered in space as I stared at the date scrawled in permanent black marker on its dull silver surface—2 January 2173. I’d been rationing its contents for just over a year.
I raised my other trembling hand to assist—carefully gripping and lifting the tin. It felt light, but I was still smiling—ready to welcome the pungent aroma as it wafted to greet my nostrils. After setting the tin on the counter next to the stovetop, I twisted open the lid. Empty. Nothing. A quick, shallow breath escaped my lungs and tears welled in my eyes. The leaves I had just dumped in the trash were the last. Staring through the silver bottom of the tin, I salivated and licked my lips. I could still taste last night’s pitifully weak cup of tea. Closing my eyes, I lowered my head forward—hoping to inhale and find comfort in at least some faint, residual scent. Instead, my nose tingled with the metallic tang of stainless steel.
Body aching and bony legs weakening, I slumped to the floor. It was cold—colder than normal—or at least colder than my distant memory of “normal.” When the hydroponic systems failed, Magrit, Ensel, and I knew what it meant. Our parents and the other elder Librarians had passed down the knowledge in hopes that we would do likewise—prepare our offspring or their offspring for what may come. But the three of us were the last and were well beyond the biological age to consider perpetuating the species.
Like the other Librarians of our generation, we dutifully went about our assigned tasks but saw no future for ourselves. Humans on the outside—if they even still existed off-island--had long since devolved into more instinctual animals—primitive beasts driven by base needs. Humans on the inside, the Librarians, quickly devolved in their own sort of way as well—into self-absorbed, self-righteous protectors of a mythical, noble humanity. They were fixated on their progeny being the genesis of some far-off, utopian future. I gave up that dream when I was seventeen—when my parents passed. I don’t think Ensel ever believed—his soul was darker from birth. Magrit had been the most hopeful of my contemporaries but grew silently jaded as her intimacy with Ensel flourished.
I missed Magrit. She loved quietly enjoying a warm cup of tea as well—so much that I didn’t mind sharing the dwindling tins of loose leaves I had discovered. It seemed the only time she was at peace—the only time she may have experienced joy in my presence. I didn’t miss Ensel. He was a coffee-addict—deeply depressed and always agitated because that supply had run out long before I began rationing the tea. He paced and grumbled while we were silently comforted by our tea. He paced and grumbled more when the fresh food from the hydroponics chamber ran out. When the temperature in the living quarters dropped to five degrees Celsius (and never rose), he grew silent and still—drawing Magrit into a darker place as well. That change in temperature confirmed that the Founders’ underlying algorithm was again shunting power--prioritizing protection of the Knowledge Core. It was outside the entrance to that vast network of chambers that housed the digital and physical records of all it meant to be human that I later found Magrit and Ensel—dead.
As I sat on the kitchen floor--rocking, quivering--my cloudy head felt heavy and bobbed forward. Through hazy eyes I could see fresh blood on my clean robe. At least Magrit and Ensel didn’t have to see me like this. I’d been without them for nearly eight months—long before the bleeding started. Without Magrit sharing the tea, I’d been able to stretch my leaves even longer. My leaves? I struggled but managed to shake my foggy head. How had I not remembered that I had already emptied the tin—started using the very last scoop of tea? The last scoop of tea?
An uncontrollable shivering woke me. Short, sharp jolts of pain were everywhere. My stomach burned and churned. Pulling my knees to my chest, I rolled on my side. Shocked by the frigid floor, I coughed violently—splattering the grey floor with thick globs of red mucus. Still shivering, I sat up, reached for the edge of the counter and spasmodically yanked myself up. The kitchen? Why was I asleep in the kitchen?
Through blurry eyes, I scanned the immediate area. The pot I’d put on the stove was still there—burner still on—but the water had boiled away. How long had I been on the floor? After soaking in a little of its heat, I turned off the burner and shuffled towards the sink. An exciting, hopeful thought had somehow managed to get past the persistent trembling and pain--perhaps I hadn’t washed out my mug from last evening’s cup of tea. Perhaps there was a weak remnant—the slightest of tannin stains—that I could resurrect into just one more cup—one last cup.
As I gazed into the sink, a rusty crescent moon of tea smiled at me from the bottom of my white ceramic mug. I returned a weak, but sincere, grin, put a small amount of water in the empty pot, and turned on the burner. Within a minute it was steaming, and I carefully poured just a little into my mug—filling it halfway. With a teaspoon I stirred—then stared. I lowered my nose and closed my eyes. There was the faintest familiar scent. I inhaled deeply—sniffled uncomfortably—and then opened my teary eyes. Small drops of blood dissipated in the hot water. Shakily, I lifted the mug to my lips and sipped. I let the warm water linger in my mouth—searching for the last hint of comforting flavor. But all I could taste was my own blood—all I could taste was my end.
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A very heavy story with the lightness of making tea. I like how you balanced it's simple enjoyment with the "cold" hard reality of his health. And your description was so good that I good smell and taste the vagueness of the tea, the empty tin and feel the simple disappointment with the greater sense of impending doom.
Thank you, Craig! Somehow the process took me to that heavy, dark place.
Hello, I was introduced to you on the Critique Circle, nice to meet you. What a powerful story of dystopian desperation. I really felt my heart wrench when the character realises he has run out of tea, and what that means to him specifically. One thing I would say is that the title seems quite lighthearted, yet the story is very much less so, although that may have been intentional as you don't introduce the severity of the situation until the second paragraph. Great work! :-)
Thank you. I struggled with the title (a common issue), but (like you said) didn't want something that gave away the gravity of the situation at hand.
Yeah, titles are very difficult! I saw that this week writers have been invited to use a title generator for one of the prompts, maybe this is a good exercise for us!
But I agree with you, that your title gives the reader a sense of security and feeling that everything is okay, before you hit us with the truth!