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art by Shothot Designs

Over Tea

Deugaw lifted his china cup again. He looked ancient, but gained fifteen years as his hands started to shake when the little cup came off the saucer. I watched as he took another tiny sip, smacked his lips again, sighed, and then went through the shaky process of getting both pieces onto the table. I tried to wait patiently, in an overstuffed chair that smelled like a wet dog, watching the fire dying on the side of the room.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like something?"
"Thank you, but no. I am quite honored that you asked me in, Sir, butů" I started.
He raised a hand. His breath rattled a bit as we sat in silence. When he spoke, there were pauses between each word almost longer than the syllables. "There's no need for pretense," he creaked.
"I'm afraid," I began, but he waved his hand again.
"My men tell me you've been doing a lot of work with glass jars and copper wires. Can you tell me about it?"
"I'm an inventor. I had an idea about ways to make light without fires."
"Intriguing. I could be a patron for that, I'm sure. And tell me, what of the foundry you have that's making rifled firearms a few years too early?" He moved his hand while he was talking, but not toward his cup. This time it kept moving, toward the velvet smoking jacket he was wearing. Out of the tiny chest pocket he pulled a little rectangle and slid it across the table. I was just staring at him.
A state of New Mexico drivers license. Issued in 2034. The picture was a hologram that leapt off the silvery surface. It was Deugaw, far younger. Back when he was Calvin Noonan.
"Forty-seven years I've been here," he said, with the same slowness. "Waiting to get home, before I realized that wouldn't happen."
"How did you get here? How did I get here?"
"I don't know. I just woke up here. You probably did the same."
"But," I waved my arms at the ornate space all around us, "all of this? It smells like dirt and you're wearing fancy rags. Why didn't you do something to make it better? To help yourself?"
The pause was long, before he chuckled. It was backed by a raspy wet noise. "I did work hard. I wish it'd been as easy as betting on a World Series or something, but there wasn't anything in my store of trivia that could really help. Then," he said, talking a little faster as he started the tea process all over, "I remembered the story about a wealthy merchant with delusions of nobility. I studied US history in college and did some papers on local history, luckily. This guy appeared out of nowhere, did some nice things while people laughed at him, invented some gadgets that made a small fortune, then died."
"Lord Deugaw."
"Very good. Now, did he exist before me and I replaced him, or was I always him?"
"I don't really understand." The fire was almost out now. I could feel the goosebumps on my arms.
"Me either. And I've been trying to figure it out for forty-seven years. I'm going to solve it now, so you know."
"You've lost me."
"Lord Deugaw died of a heart attack at age eighty."
"And you are eighty now? You think you'll die soon?"
"I know I will. There's a subtle taste of bitter poison to this tea. I could have put some sugar in to mute it, but I think sugar in tea is blasphemy," he smiled. "I almost wish you'd accepted some, since I've seen your fancy inventions and know you're a meddler. It would be better to remove the threat before you mess with time."
"You're killing yourself?"
He shook his head. "I'm speeding things along. Living fifty years in an era without health care of any sort has been rough. I'm not well and welcome the peace."
"And why am I here?"
"To observe. If I die of poison, then we can change the past. Then you know you'll need to be very careful in your time here. Stop trying to rework things for your advantage. Stop messing with the flow."
"And if suddenly your heart seizes from a reaction?"
"Then go, live your life in peace. And I can be at peace knowing we can't change things. I can be at peace either way, knowing the truth will have been discovered."
He sipped from his tea again. I looked at the glass of wine the servant had left, feeling the cool draft coming from the stone walls, but I didn't dare touch it now.
"Listen to me," he said, his tone harsh. The pauses were shorter. "It is not our place to change things. We could do terrible damage."
"Or perhaps we're here to put things right. Maybe I'm here because you didn't change things."
He clenched his teeth. "I've heard of your experiments with combustion engines. You're playing a dangerous game."
"I'm playing, period. What else am I supposed to do while I wait for the Redcoats to march on us? I have nowhere else to go."
"You're preparing to fight. You're dreaming that you'll be the hero of the Revolution. You're a fool that can mess everything up. You'll kill thousands in needless war."
"Thousands will die anyway in single battles. I'm going to make the war shorter."
"You should not alter history. Everything must stay as it was."
"You never had such thoughts? Changing things?"
"It was not my place to change history, Sir," he sighed.
"But you don't know if you can," I reminded him. "You never tried to find out."
"You will know. It will be my gift to you."
He lifted the cup and saucer, but only made it about an inch before some sort of paralysis ran through his arms. Both crashed onto the little lap desk and shattered, spilling the green liquid onto papers and blankets.
Lord Deugaw looked at me with wet eyes, but he was smiling. The poison was kicking in. He knew. I'd know. Then everyone would know. He'd found his peace. It just wasn't the peace I wanted to see.
I rushed to the doorway and leaned out, to where the butler was packing his pipe by the kitchen doors. "Come quick, it's his heart!" I yelled. I looked back as the footsteps pounded, to see the smile fade from the expectant face.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010


T.M. Thomas is a writer living in the town that gave the world Lucille Ball and the 10,000 Maniacs. I prefer the Maniacs to Lucy, but wouldn't mind having her enduring fame. "Over Tea" was one of those ideas that just wouldn't go away until it was finally typed out. The challenge in this piece was trying to maintain elements of moral and plot ambiguity, which are things I enjoy as a reader, while still giving readers enough certainty to stay invested in the tale.

- T. M. Thomas

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