Tea Leaves and Sapphire Earrings


Match Twenty-Three: Manchineel:

Florence didn’t have much time left. Her health kept circling the drain. She never got out of bed anymore. Alfred stayed by her side. He felt helpless watching her.

“I’m still here,” he whispered. Lydia stood off in the corner. She still wasn’t speaking to the American man but she didn’t try to chase him off anymore. Alfred turned his head.

“How much longer does she have?” he asked. Lydia shook her head.

“Oh…” Alfred muttered to himself. Right now, Florence was sound asleep. She looked so pale in the darkness.

“Florence…” the American man said. That peaceful expression on her face struck him in the heart. She probably knew what was coming but she wasn’t scared or sad. How could she be so calm?

Life still had to go on around them. Alfred practically stayed at their house for the time being. When was the last time he slept in his own bed? The American man rubbed his forehead.

“Are you okay?” Lydia asked.

“No,” he admitted. He leaned up against the wall. “I’m just tired.”

“Then go home,” she said. Alfred shook his head.

“Can’t,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Lydia asked. He looked up at her.

“How about you?” he asked.

“Huh?” she asked.

“How have you been?” the American man asked. “You still haven’t told me what happened to you while you were out. She cut him a cold glare.

“Go home,” she hissed.

“I can’t,” he said. Lydia narrowed her eyes at him.

“And why is that?” she asked.

“I love her,” Alfred said in a low voice.

“What?” she asked. The American man looked up at him with desperation in his eyes.

“I said, I love her,” he said again. “I care about both of you. I can’t leave you. I won’t leave you.” Lydia didn’t know whether to scream or cry.

“How can you say that?” she asked. “You are just… you!”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Alfred asked. Lydia sighed and shook her head.

“Whatever,” she muttered.

“Look, what’s the matter?” he asked. “What happened to you?”

“I don’t want to talk about,” Lydia said under her breath.

“What?” Alfred asked.

“Leave me alone!” she shouted. The American man went silent. He turned his attention back to the sleeping Florence. She still looked so peaceful.

Alfred started to do the chores around the house. Anything to take his mind off of Florence’s numbered days. Sometimes, he would help out Mrs. Gomez.

“You don’t have to do all of that,” she told him as he raked her front yard.

“I want to,” Alfred lied. She didn’t try to stop him. He needed this. As he raked, the American man couldn’t stop wondering.

“Mrs. Gomez?” he asked. She looked up at him from her porch.

“Hm?” the old lady asked. Alfred walked up the stony path to the stairs. The closer he got, the more he could see that little girl in her face. He blinked for a moment.

“I have something to ask you,” he said.

“What is it?” Mrs. Gomez asked.

“Did you have any children or grandchildren?” Alfred asked. He could feel the chill of the autumn wind blowing overhead. The American man waited for a response. Mrs. Gomez lowered her head.

“Yes,” she said in a quiet voice. The older woman stood up and walked into her house.

“Mrs. Gomez?” Alfred asked. He followed her into the house.

The middle-aged woman sat at her dining table in the dark. Alfred stood in the doorway to the living room.

“Mrs. Gomez?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Hm?” Alfred asked. The older woman looked up, ready to cry.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the American man said. Mrs. Gomez shook her head.

“No, it’s fine,” she said. “Her name was Grace. She was my granddaughter.” Alfred took his seat at the opposite end of the table.

“What happened to her?” he asked. The older woman sighed.

“My daughter, I don’t know where I went wrong,” she admitted. “I did right by her. I really did. She ran away from home with a boyfriend when she was sixteen. Two years later, Grace was born.”

Mrs. Gomez sighed. “That little girl was the only light in my life. I adored her from the moment I first held her. I was awarded full custody of her. I did everything right by that child. Those first four years of her life were the best time for me.”

“What happened?” Alfred asked. Mrs. Gomez frowned.

“Her mother wanted to be back in her life,” she said.

“Was that… a bad thing?” he asked.

“No, actually,” Mrs. Gomez said. “My daughter had gotten off of drugs and left her abusive boyfriend. She was getting help and wanted to reconnect with Grace. I didn’t complain. She needed her mother after all. And everything was going well.” She looked down at her hands.

“My daughter got a job across the country,” the older lady said. “She took Grace with her. I had a bad feeling about this. I tried to warn my daughter not to go but she didn’t listen to me. She accused me of trying to micromanage her life. In the end, I lost.” She looked over the kitchen.

“She was supposed to visit me the day she died,” Mrs. Gomez added. “I was going to get her her favorite meal from McDonalds. Grace wanted to see off her toys she got from California.” The details sounded so familiar to Alfred.

“Was Grace on American Airlines 11 when she died?” he asked. That question just happened. He didn’t even realize that he was standing up. The American man covered his mouth when he realized what happened. He feared that their neighbor would be offended. Instead, she stared at him with big eyes.

“How did you know?” Mrs. Gomez asked.

“I think I have been seeing her around,” he said. “She’s been hunting me and I don’t know why.” Her eyes widened as she looked over his shoulder.

“Grace?” she asked. “Grace, baby? Is that you?” Alfred turned around and stood up. There she was. Grace stood at the front door with her Hello Kitty backpack. The little girl looked like she was ready to cry. Mrs. Gomez stood up and walked over to the little ghost girl. Alfred could’ve taken in this happy reunion but something felt off.

Suddenly, his phone rang.

“Hello?” the American man asked.

“Alfred, come quick!” a girl’s voice yelled. “It’s Florence! She’s not breathing!”

“Lydia?” the American man asked. “Lydia, is that you?” The line went dead. Alfred looked at his phone. His stomach sank.

“I have to go, Mrs. G! I’ll be right back!” he yelled as he ran out the door.

Meanwhile, Tessa hung up her phone and smiled. It was time for her to make another call. She and Sabine drove right into their work.

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