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Goldfish and Tea

Bo Balder's second story in Daily Science Fiction.
The White Lady will receive us in the honeymoon suite. The elevator groans and stutters getting us up. I'm afraid it's going to fail and crash, and I can't tell Dad because I know he won't listen to me anyway. Or maybe we both kind of want that to happen and I don't want to see it in his eyes.
The room is large and dim. Sand blowing up from the deserted beach rattles against the shutters like a steel brush, even though this is the fortieth floor. A funny smell, like old mushrooms, floats in the air.
I hold on tight to Dad's hand as he pulls me to the empty cushions around the low table. We're late. Everyone else is already seated. Strangers with patched clothes and empty eyes. Maybe that's how we look to them, as well.
My eyes slowly adjust to the lack of light. The Lady kneels at the head of the table. She's heavily shrouded in colorless robes, barely discernible against the dun walls and faded hangings. So far, the whole summer has been like that, everything hot, dusty, beige, all color leached out of the world. Even here, on the Atlantic coast, the drought was visible in the yellowed lawns and shriveled trees when we drove up.
Dad has been chasing enlightenment, or something, since Mom died. A month after her death, he sold our house, threw our stuff away, including pictures, and took me out of 6th grade. Off we went in an old electrified Airstream. What can I do but tag along? I'm only eleven. Hidden in my back pocket is one last photo of Mom, softening into wrinkledom day by day.
This tea ceremony is just going to be another dull moment in the thousand rituals Dad wants to experience. We've bathed, fasted, meditated, whipped ourselves, purged, and whirled across America. So far none of it has brought him enlightenment, as far as I can tell. If that's what he needs. He never asks what I need. Or even talks about Mom.
I just hang on. Without Mom, and without school, my friends, my books; nothing's fun, and everything's terrible. Boring travels in the colorless land, I call it in my head as I write in my pretend journal at night. Dad refuses to buy me a journal and a pen, saying we must divest ourselves of our worldly goods and desires.
I eye the room. A vase of desiccated flowers, probably once pink, now beige. The faded and patched jeans of our fellow travelers, who I imagine to be just like Dad. Enlightenment seekers who would travel to India if they could, but have only managed this hotel room. I'm the only child. Only my father's sweaty hand around mine makes it possible for me to stay and sit still. The others converse in awed whispers, hard to distinguish from the hissing of the wind outside.
The White Lady's dun robes fall back, revealing more colorless drapes. Her face remains hidden in a deep hood, but bone-pale hands slip out, made paler by black henna snaking around her long thin fingers. She lifts a teapot and pours steaming tea into a cup.
Through the steam, the teapot shines a sharp, minty green, the ceramics so smooth and rounded and pristine it seemed freshly created right this minute.
She pours a second cup. I glimpse something shimmering in the flow. The tea makes the cup glow like spring leaves at home. My eyes swim with homesickness. Mom loved spring in our garden. I know we couldn't have done anything to keep Mom alive, but why not at least keep the house and her flower beds?
The first traveler gulps the tea down. She slumps, head bowed to her chest.
I watch the Lady pour more tea with her long, long arms, trying to catch that sparkle in the water. It's like a living thing. When a cup arrives in front of my neighbor, I peek in. Something definitely moves around in there.
My turn now. The tea's scent is grassy and light. I start to pick up the cup.
A little white thing circles around in the piping hot tea. Like a pale goldfish. It moves too quickly, and the tea distorts the details.
I don't want to drink anything living. Let alone something that can survive in hot water! But maybe I should. I move my hand closer to the cup. My stomach clenches like a warning.
This tea is not for me.
I sit back. My father's hand slips out of mine, leaving my palm cold and lonely. He reaches eagerly for his cup.
He looks down into the tea and his eyes widen. He looks at me as if asking for permission. I shake no. His brow crinkles. He casts his eyes down and drinks anyway.
"Dad," I say. Too late.
The tea drinkers are turning white and still like the Lady. Whatever she is, whatever they're becoming, it's nothing human.
I grab Dad's hand. It cools down against my palm faster than a cup of tea would. A shiver travels up my arm. I have to go. Nobody stops me when I stand up to leave that room full of strange new beings. I look back at my father, but he never lifts his eyes. The Lady's pale eyes follow me but she doesn't speak or move.
I realize Dad hasn't been searching for enlightenment, but for oblivion. But really, he's been gone for months.
I close the door. It takes me three tries to hang the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the handle.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
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