The room was set for tea. Two place settings of white china with pale pink roses waited for the diners, one on each end of the long, mahogany table. Polished cutlery sat beside the delicate cups and saucers. A vase of freshly cut red roses and baby’s breath rested in the center of the table, balanced on either side by heavy silver candelabra.
Three walls were made of glass, and the bright afternoon sunshine poured in. A grandfather clock stood in the corner alongside the fourth wall, its hour hand keeping pace with the sun overhead, its second hand marking the minutes.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
A girl, not yet grown, stood beside the first glass wall, staring toward the white-tipped mountains on the horizon. The pale blue silk of her dress rustled as she raised a hand to press it against the cool glass.
A face, ghostly and pale, floated across her line of vision, and she stiffened, startled. She peered harder, and the face reappeared, taking on depth and dimension. The man was looking toward her over his shoulder, waving her forward, shouting unheard words. A metal helmet covered his head, and dirt mixed with blood streaked his cheeks.
She caught her breath and stood perfectly still. Waiting. Watching. Then she flattened her hand against the glass and pushed.
The air was heavy with not-yet-fallen rain, and despite the shade of the forest boughs overhead, she felt sweat begin to drip down her back within seconds. A loud BANG exploded up ahead, and she jumped.
A flurry of snaps and cracks came from the underbrush, and the man she had seen through the glass darted out in front of her, clutching a rifle against his chest.
“Forward, men!” he shouted. “Move, move, move!”
A new series of sticks cracking came from behind her, and she knew suddenly that the forest was filled with men like the one standing before her. Men with helmets and guns and eyes of steel.
The man turned, saw her, and halted. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, when another BANG sounded through the trees. He stiffened, the muscles in his face going slack, and fell toward her onto his face.
She ran to him, turned him over, tried to stop the red splotch from growing across his chest. But she couldn’t. She turned and fled back toward her glass walls.
Blood. There was so much of it. Try as she might, she couldn’t scrub it out of her silk dress or purge it entirely from the skin of her hands. So she dawned a new dress, this one made of a more practical but still pretty muslin, and pulled gloves over her hands.
Beyond the glass wall, the scene in the forest continued, but she couldn’t watch. She sat with her back to the wall and tried to eat a scone, but the pastry sat dry and tasteless in her mouth, and she had to gulp her tea to wash it down.
Restless, she walked to the second wall, still clear glass, and watched the gold-orange sun setting. Another face, this time that of a woman, shimmered before her, and she shut her eyes, not wanting to see. But, curiosity being too great, she soon opened them again.
The woman stood, slumped beside an overflowing garbage dumpster, at the edge of a dimly lit alleyway. It was night, and just beyond the alley, a street light flickered in and out, adding an eerie glow to the scene. The woman’s head was drooping against her chest, but when a man approached and stood before her, she looked up.
He said something, words the girl couldn’t hear, but she saw the woman shake her head. His face darkened. He grabbed the woman’s arm, and when she yanked her arm away, he slapped her.
The girl gasped, and forgetting her former resolution to ignore the scenes in the glass, she pushed through.
It was cold, much colder than she had expected, and a brisk wind cut straight through her dress. She spun slowly, a little disoriented, looking for the man and woman. The night sky spat a few scattered raindrops in her face, and far away, she heard the rumble of thunder.
A woman’s cry drew her attention, and she spotted the pair she’d seen through the glass. The woman was on the ground at the man’s feet, and he was aiming a kick at her ribs.
“S-stop,” the girl whispered. Then, louder, “Stop!” She darted closer and cried out once more. “Leave her alone!”
The man heard her this time and glanced in her direction. Seeing her thin figure and pretty dress, he laughed and took a couple steps toward her. She was backing away, panic rising, when the man crumpled at her feet. The woman stood behind him, a metal length of pipe in her hand.
“Th-thank you,” the girl managed.
The woman was angry. “What did you think you were doing?”
“I-I was just trying to help.”
The woman scoffed. “I don’t need help. Especially not from someone like you.” She stalked away.
Rain started to spatter hard, disguising the tears that slipped down the girl’s cheeks as she returned to her glass walls.
Her glass-walled room was warm. Safe. She tried to focus on that as she removed her soaked dress and replaced it with a plain, cotton one.
She made fresh tea and sat at one end of the table to drink it, but she soon grew distracted by the words echoing in her mind.
I don’t need help. Not from someone like you.
The words stung. She hadn’t known words could hurt. The tea grew cold in her cup.
The remaining glass wall drew her attention, though she tried to ignore it. The blue sky was bright, speckled with tiny white clouds that were mirrored in the clear water of the lake below. She stood from the table and walked hesitantly forward.
The scenery was peaceful, and she had just felt herself begin to relax when the third face appeared. It was a child, thin and gaunt, his big brown eyes appearing even larger above his sunken cheeks. He stared right at her, as if he could see her, though she knew that wasn’t possible. A sound escaped her mouth, something halfway between a sob and a moan.
She buried her face in her hands. I can’t go. I can’t. Not again. Then she peeked through her fingers. The boy had raised his hand in a gesture of greeting. She looked into his eyes, noting again his too-thin cheeks. Then she looked over her shoulder at her glass-walled room. Then back at the boy.
I can’t stay.
Tentatively, she raised her hand, returning the boy’s wave. She rested her fingertips against the glass and, after taking a deep breath, pushed.
Hot wind whipped her dress around her legs, and she tasted sand on her tongue. The sky was blue with not a cloud to be seen, and the white sun made her squint.
The boy stood before her, and when she met his gaze, his lips parted into a wide grin, revealing several missing teeth. He chortled, and his glee made her mouth twitch upward. She knelt in the hot sand and held out one hand, waiting to see what would happen. He grabbed her hand with both of his and tugged her to her feet, motioning toward the horizon and chattering excitedly.
She replied, though she didn’t understand what he was saying, and he laughed again. She followed him, unsure where he would lead.
The scenes on the glass walls faded in and out, sometimes changing quickly, other times slowly. Men continued to fall bleeding to the forest floor on the first wall until a white strip of cloth fluttered across the scene, signaling a temporary truce. Men and women dressed in various degrees of disarray trotted back and forth across the second wall, sometimes pushing or shoving, sometimes offering a helping hand.
On the third wall, a young woman frequently appeared. Her skin grew dark and her hair bleached itself blond in the sun. Children with skinny arms and legs surrounded her, tugging at her skirt, her arm, her hand. Crinkles formed on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes and mouth as she laughed…and cried…and laughed again.
The room was set for an imperfect tea. A discarded spoon lay beside a saucer. The once hot tea evaporated from its cup, leaving a dark stain at the bottom. The roses and baby’s breath wilted and dropped their petals to the table’s polished mahogany surface. And in the corner, the grandfather clock ticked on.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.