I am going to die. The thought pounded in her head as she slumped over her knees. The wicked north wind bit at her neck, sweeping her hair over her face, but she didn't move.
It is simply not worth it anymore. As if in reply, the wind howled around the apartment complex, swirling the dry leaves into a hissing, dizzying cyclone. She lifted her eyes to watch, but barely saw what was right in front of her.
Does it really matter, anyway? she wondered, biting her lip. She was entirely alone—no parents, no siblings, no husband, no children, not even a pet.
No one would really miss you, another voice suggested. Gasping, she squeezed her eyes shut again.
No, no, she whimpered in her mind. Go away! I won't listen to you!
You're only lying to yourself!
Leave me alone!
Suddenly, another voice interrupted, a voice that was louder and brighter and harsher and truer than the one that whispered her doom.
"Hello, there!" Her eyes popped open and she stared at the speaker. There before her stood a woman with greying hair and bright eyes. Her hair was short and permed; her feet were shoved carelessly into bright purple-and-pink dotted galoshes. A peacoat was thrown over her shoulders, but not buttoned, and her hands were shoved deep into the pockets. Despite her unkempt appearance, her skin was clean, and she smelt pleasantly of face powder. The woman nodded, then glanced at the overcast sky. "Storm's moving in, honey; it'll be a doozy."
"Yes," the girl murmured, feeling dazed. Is this really happening? she wondered. In a moment, though, she had no choice but to believe in reality.
"Would you like to come in for some tea?" the old woman asked. Startled, the girl stared at her, wondering if she was as crazy as she sounded.
"Tea?" she repeated, feeling stupid. The old woman nodded.
"It'd be good to have some company," she remarked, pulling a hand out of her pocket and inspecting her fingernails. She turned a warm smile on the girl. "It'd be nice if it was you." Slowly, the girl unhooked her arms from around her knees and unfolded her legs.
"I . . . I suppose I could do that," she muttered, feeling shy. The woman's eyes lit up and she threw her head back and laughed.
"Come right in, then!" she crowed, marching up the steps and unlocking the front door. She held it open for the girl and stepped into the hallway after her. "I'm on the top floor, dearie," she directed as the girl hesitated. At the door of the apartment, the woman stopped and unlocked three locks on the door, then threw it open as well. In a moment, she was bustling about the small kitchen, putting the kettle on the stove, pulling out a box of store-brand cookies and piling them on a plate, rummaging for and discovering six variety boxes of tea, and choosing two cups and saucers from a high cupboard with glass doors. "Milk, lemon, honey, sugar?" she called to the girl, who was standing, dazed, in the middle of the living room.
"Uhm . . . honey, please."
"Is that all, sweetie?" the old woman asked, popping her head around the door. The girl nodded, her eyes roving around the living room. The old woman stopped what she was doing and came into the living room. She smiled as she followed the girl's eyes over the oil paintings, charcoal drawings, watercolors, pencil sketches, and pen and ink drawings. "Marvelous, aren't they?" she said, her voice soft. As if she was suddenly awakened, the girl jumped and turned wondering eyes to the old woman.
"They're—they're fantastic," she blurted, her breath coming quickly. "So—so good they—they hurt." She pressed both hands to her heart, and the old woman nodded.
"That's what I always told him." Her voice caressed the word him, and she brushed aside her bangs and stared at the floor. "But no—always better, always better! He said they were never quite good enough." She laughed under her breath and shook her head, glancing up at the girl. "My son," she explained. "This was the last one he did for me." She motioned toward a bright oil painting hanging by a window. The girl stepped forward, her eyes devouring the reds and yellows and blues, her lips parted as she fought for breath.
"The . . . last?" she managed, chewing on her bottom lip. The old woman nodded.
"He . . . he killed himself a month later." Sadness tinged her voice, and she wiped her eyes. "Ahhhh . . . nothing was ever good enough for him, poor dear. He knew Jesus, had so many reasons to live, but the darkness—it was just too much for him." The girl stood still in the middle of the floor, her eyes downcast. Then, suddenly, she whirled to the old woman and threw both arms around her. The old woman's arms went around her, and they stood there—two sorrowing hearts, clinging to each other for comfort—until the tea kettle screamed its disgust. Letting the girl go, the old woman laughed shakily and handed the girl a tissue. "My lands, honey; you're crying, too." The girl shook her head, accepting the tissue and blowing her nose.
"I . . . I'm so sorry," she managed. "I—I can't imagine . . ."
"Oh, sweetie, don't try to, please. It's not something I'd wish on anyone." The old woman searched the girl's face, her eyes concerned. "You understand him, don't you?" she remarked, her voice soft. The girl froze. Then, slowly, she nodded her head.
"I –I'm completely alone," she admitted, hanging her head. "Sometimes it doesn't seem worth it to stay around." The kettle shrieked again and the old woman turned toward the kitchen.
"Well," she said, her voice brisk again. "Let's talk about it over tea. Maybe we'll sort some things out."
"It's way more complicated than that." The girl couldn't fight the bitterness in her voice, but the old lady just laughed her soft laugh again.
"Of course not. Not in one day. You can always come back, though." With that, she busied herself about the tea things, setting the plate of cookies on the table, pouring hot water into the cups. The girl stepped toward the kitchen, but paused and stared back at the bright, frightening, cruel painting. It mesmerized her, called her to join it and its creator.
"Coming, sweetie?" The bright voice interrupted her, once more, and she shook herself.
"One minute," she called back. Her eyes drifted from the painting to the window next to it. Outside, the sun was breaking through the thick clouds. Its weak beams sifted into the room, playing against the walls.
The girl smiled for the first time in months.