By the time I reached Senior Year, it was safe to say Mom was taking the whole 'tea' thing a bit too far. The 'that's not tea — that's a tisane, honey' kind of 'too far.' The kind of 'too far' where you walk up to your eleven-year old nephew and call him a 'plebian' for using a teabag.
You know. As a joke.
The kind where nobody laughs. Not even the person making it.
My Dad, clever as he always was, played it cool. He knew a sleeping beast when he saw one. I suspect he foolishly believed, even at the point where we had enough tea in our garage to establish a new trade route with Estonia, that it was just a phase. That the storm, as brutal and destructive as it was to our bank account, would eventually pass. He therefore happily chose to take all five (if he was unlucky, sometimes more) cups Mom had to dish out every day.
He was pissing buckets practically 24/7. Not much his cleverness could do about that.
I, on the other hand, managed to avoid this strange trial life had suddenly decided to throw at me. Even thinking about it now, I'm surprised how little effect it actually had. I guess I had more than enough things on my mind that saying 'no' to tea — even to a woman like my mother — felt inconsequential compared to the inevitability of college applications and the crippling anxiety of moving out.
Of course, as we now know, I never went to college. Not in the way that I was supposed to, at least. And, as it turned out, the whole ordeal of leaving home wasn't 'moving out' as much as it was 'running out.'
Besides the point, though.
What matters is that, sometime mid-February of that year, my History teacher caught his husband with another man in their Winnebago, went to Vegas, undeniably got addicted to coke, and came back a week later with the brilliant idea of an unexpected quiz — scheduled for the following day. A quiz that carried way more of the grade than should've been legally allowed, but not enough to where the smart kids would've gotten upset about it and actually looked the law up.
Seeing as how History was the one class I had a pretty decent chance of failing, I had no choice but to take it seriously. That night, I stayed up well-past 2 in the morning, struggling to keep my own attention long enough to power through the sixty or so pages without falling asleep.
Mom was a bit of a nighthawk. Usually went to bed around 3. It was actually the first time I'd seen her go to sleep before me.
"You need anything? Maybe some tea for that extra energy boost?" she asked me.
"I'm good." I simply said.
Such was the simple conversation of two zombies in bathrobes.
By the time 4 came around, I knew that it was time to call it quits. What was done was done. As far as I was concerned, History ended with Napoleon going to Waterloo. The remaining twenty pages, I decided, were fanfiction.
I passed through the kitchen on my way to the bathroom. There was a half-empty cup of tea on the counter. That seemed a bit odd. Mom wouldn't have left something unfinished. Dad wouldn't have been allowed to. And if it had been left specifically for me, who had drunk from it?
Chucking the thought to late-morning musings, I filed it away.
It was only a few weeks later, when I found myself up late again — this time being less about studying and little bit more about crying — that me and Mom had the same zombie exchange as before. That's when the image of the half-empty cup returned to me.
"Oh, hey." I said. "By the way, did you, like, leave a cup of tea for me when I was doing that History thing?"
She yawned. "Nope. You said you didn't want any, right?"
"Right. But there was a cup on the counter when I checked later."
"Right." she smiled. "But that one wasn't for you."
"It was half-empty."
"And it was completely empty by morning."
"Do you, like, wake up in the middle of the night and just take random sips or what?" I asked.
"Don't be silly. The ghost drinks from it."
"Oh." I said. "Okay."
I blinked. "What?"
"The ghost." she repeated.
"Right. I definitely got that. I just feel like you should maybe, like. Elaborate."
"There's a ghost that shows up and drinks some tea I leave for him over night. At first, I thought it might've been your grandfather, but he really lacks the build. Frankly, I don't know who he is or what his purpose for staying behind might be. Maybe everyone stays behind. We haven't really talked. He just seems to like tea, so I indulge him. Better than pissing off an otherworldly being, right?"
It took me a while to grasp the words. "Are you fucking with me?"
I stared at her from my desk and she at me from the doorway.
She chuckled. "Well, good night."
I chuckled too, albeit without some of her confidence. "Good night."
Even though no longer facing me, she didn't leave. "Jacob?"
I rubbed my eyes. "Yeah?"
"I never liked Julie all that much, anyway." she said.
I sighed. "I don't know why everyone keeps saying that. Not like it was all her fault."
"She's the one who messed up." Mom said bluntly.
"I said I don't wanna talk about it." I leaned back in my seat. "I'm not gonna run away to Vegas for a week, if it makes you feel any better." I managed to force a smile.
"Good night, Jacob." I couldn't see her face. I knew she was pitying me, though. In spite of all her good intentions, it just made things worse.
By the time I heard the rooster in the distance, I realized the crying had stopped at one point. My cheeks still felt moist, though. I was exhausted. I could only thank my lucky stars it was Saturday.
I made my way to the bathroom.
Entering the kitchen, however, I found myself frozen in tracks.
Standing at the counter was a man. How Mom could've ever thought for a second he was Granddad, I'll never know. For crying out loud, he was young. Young enough to where the suit he was wearing looked silly and over-sized. Young enough to where it took me a while to realize it was even a man, trying to judge from his face alone.
In his hands was a porcelain cup.
"Hey." he said. "Good morning. Don't worry, I'll be out of your hair in a bit."
"I'm calling the cops." I said.
He smiled. "This tea is damn fine. Damn fine. Kudos to your Mom."
"Okay. I'm still calling the cops." I said, shivering. "Don't move."
"You know what people should do? Start sexualizing teas. Why are people not horny for teas? I mean, I'd sleep with this tea." He took a sip. "Damn good tea." Realizing that I was on the verge of screaming, he raised his finger in the air. "If you don't calm down, I'll tell your parents you're failing History."
"How do you know about that?"
He chuckled. "C'mon, man. The golden rule of surprise quizzes is that it'll always exclusively have the shit you didn't study for. That's the surprise."
"I don't understand." I admitted.
"Well. I wouldn't worry about it too much, I guess." he said, putting the teacup down. "World's full of surprises. You just gotta know where to look."
He then stuck his hand in our toaster.
The toaster sucked him in.
In psychology, you might call what happened to me next as 'conditioning.' Dogs get conditioned to salivate when they hear the dog food bag being popped open. Cats get conditioned to feel like they own anything and everything whenever they take a breath. Men get conditioned to start thinking of escape routes when they find their partners waiting for them at the kitchen table.
I got conditioned to scream at the sight of my Dad's toast.