Cup of Tea

Phil Sampson woke up with a start. The first thing he saw was the bone china teacup

in his hand the dregs of its contents still rippling from his body jerking when he awoke. He

couldn’t believe he had fallen asleep. In 28 years working with the city, he had never once

slept on the job.

The second thing he realized was where he was, inside James Conover’s wreck of a house

. Phil looked around the room not seeing the homeowner. The living room of the old Victorian

home held many hiding spots as it was just as overflowing with junk as the old man’s yard.

He sat up, remembering his revulsion when he sat on the Queen Anne chair with the torn

seat, chewed up leg and dark stain at the headrest.

“Mr. Conover? Where are you? We haven’t finished our discussion.” Phil’s voice sounded

muted in the room filled with boxes, books, toys engine parts, and other items Mr. Conover

had dragged into his home over the years.

“Mr. Conover?”

In irritation, Phil glanced down at his watch. It read 2:13. He had only been at the house for

twenty minutes, ten minutes longer than he had intended. He was only there to inform

Mr. Conover of the city’s decision to evict the old man and clean up the property.

Conover would be compensated for the current value of the property, minus the cost of

clean up and demolition of the house that had been officially condemned years ago.

Conover had been cited numerous times for the state of his property. The fines had always

been paid, but nothing had ever been done to clean up the property. The house itself was

in disrepair. All the windows upstairs were broken, and there was a gaping hole in the roof.

James Conover never left his property, nor was he ever seen unless someone came to his

door. Phil knew that the city had a buyer for the lot, his brother in law, who was hoping to

build a high end condo on the property but couldn’t move forward until they got Mr. Conover

to vacate the property. All attempts to settle the matter by mail, or messenger had failed. He

did not have a phone and refused to leave his home.

Phil set down the teacup on the edge of a table stacked high with cigar boxes, then stood.

He had hesitated over the invite into the house, but felt a hint of compassion for the stooped

elderly man in the crumpled sweater who had answered the door then brightly invited him

inside to get out of the weather for a few. Phil was there to tell the man he was to be

homeless by the end of the week. Doing it inside instead of on the rickety front porch

while the blustery March wind blew right through his suit would make the news easier for at

least one of them.

“Mr. Conover?”

Phil wound his way through the stacks of clutter until he found the door leading out of the

living room and into the equally cluttered foyer. The room on the other side of the door was

not the foyer, but a weakly lit hallway, with department store mannequins lined up along one

wall, and racks of clothing on another. There was too much crammed into the space to see

far into the hallway or what lay on the other side.

I must have gotten turned around. Phil thought as he reversed his steps to navigate himself

to the other side of the room. He bumped his hip against a stack wooden picture frames,

causing the tower of wooden squares to teeter then spill itself onto the floor and other piles.

Phil tried in vain to stop it, wrenching his back as he tripped over something lunging for the

falling squares.

Cursing he started to restack the frames before considering the task a waste of time. He called

again for Mr. Conover. Again he heard no response. He stomped his way to the doorway,

only to find himself facing the same hallway with the mannequins.

“I don’t have time for this,” Phil grumbled as he turned back again, mad that he’d gotten

distracted then turned around by the picture frames.

“Conover! Where in the hell are you?” He yelled as he navigated himself to the opposite

side of the room, and a hallway with mannequins on one side and racks of clothes on the other.

Phil felt a shiver of unease. “Conover? This isn’t funny.”

He went back to where he had woken up. His chair faced the one Mr. Conover had sat in, and

poured the two of them lukewarm tea from a china pot in the same pattern as the cup he had

woken up holding. The pot and Conover’s cup were still sitting on the stack of People

magazines sitting next to the old man’s chair. The smiling images were the stars of a show

popular when Phil was in high school. Phil glanced down seeing that Conover’s cup was still

full.

“Shit. Did you drug me old man?” Phil yelled. “It’s not going to help you other than give you a

nice bed in the city jail. Show yourself or I’m pressing charges.”

Hearing no answer, Phil crossed towards a window. He had to climb over a crate of coffee

makers and a tangle of rusty tricycles to reach the double windows, tearing his pants on a

corner of the crate. He stumbled to the windows sweating from the exertion. Phil had neve

r been a fan of exercise, figuring walking up the two flights of stairs he took to his office

every day was enough. He blamed his girth on his wife’s cooking and

Councilman Jack Houston who owned a donut shop. He usually didn’t leave the office during

the day, content to work in his small but neat office recording real estate transactions into the

city’s database. It was a favor to his brother in law that he was even here, that and a promise

of a cut in the profits from the sale of units once the condo was built.

The view outside the window revealed the branches of an overgrown holly bush rustling

back and forth against the windows, and a peek at the collection of lawnmowers piled

willy-nilly next to the trunk of a gnarled tree. The light outside had faded, either from cloud

cover, or the pending arrival of nightfall. Phil tried to open both window with no success.

He took a closer look seeing that they had both been nailed shut.

“Conover!” Phill called out again. “I need to leave. My wife expects me home for supper.”

He looked at his watch, again. It read 2:13.

“Great, just great. Now my watch has stopped too.” Phil grumbled aloud. He climbed over the

tricycles and coffee pots again to the cleared pathway in the room. Making his way back to the

two chairs, he sat down to rest and get his bearings. He glared at the teapot and matching cup

sitting across from him. Mr. Conover had told him that he had just brewed a fresh pot.

“I get so few visitors. It would be a treat to share tea with you, even though I know why you

are here.” Conover had held the front door open wide to give Phil room to enter. “Have a cup

with me while I consider the future you’ve come to tell me about.

Out of courtesy, Phil had allowed himself to be led into the room, where he sat then was

handed the cup of tea. Thinking back, he remembered being handed his cup and intending

to only drink a sip before giving the old man the bad news. He remembered nothing what

happened next, until the moment he woke up.

Now the old man had disappeared, and Phil couldn’t figure out how to get out of the room.

He glanced at the stack of cigar boxes next to him. He picked up as many as he could carry,

setting them down in intervals on the floor until he reached the doorway. He noted that it

was indeed the hallway. Smiling in triumph, he turned to head in the opposite direction. He

got three steps past the seating area when he saw that the other direction had cigar boxes

also heading to the door.

Phil, was now puzzled and afraid. None of it made any sense. He felt that it was like being

in one of those carnival fun houses that intentionally tries to confuse people as they find their

way out. Only this was an ugly old house in a neighborhood that was seeing revitalization

after years of neglect.

He wondered if there were doors that he had missed that led to the true way out, It took more

climbing over piles of debris and the discovery of a collection of small, dried out carcasses,

piled into three laundry baskets, lining one wall. Phil didn’t want to know what the carcasses

used to be. He was tired and frightened. He fell twice getting back to the seating area, once

barely missing a small jumble of old pruners and hedge trimmers. Sitting back down in his

chair again, he found himself staring at the pot of tea and the cup beside it. Despite what he

feared the contents contained, he was thirsty.

Rejecting the idea of drinking any of the tea, he stood and picked up another cigar box. Going

three steps, he set it on the floor, took three more steps, then picked up a bedraggled stuffed

duck with a length of ribbon around its neck and set it on the floor. He continued, taking three

steps then setting an item on the floor until he reached the doorway. He turned to face the

center of the room, took a breath then walked back. His shoulders sagged as he saw that

the items he had used, matched the items trailing its way to the opposite door.

“Please Mr. Conover. I just want to go home. I’ll even see what I can do to get you a nice

apartment. My brother-in-law owns a building, Just help me out.” Phil pleaded.

Meeting the same silence he had since he had awakened, his temper broke. He swept the

remaining cigar boxes off the table by his chair, knocking off the teacup. It fell to the floor

where it cracked in half. Phil kicked the remains of the cup into a pile covered with a cloth.

The impact of the cup halves stirred up a cloud of dust that had Phil coughing. He covered

his mouth and nose with his arm as he waited for the dust to settle.

He sat back down in the chair to catch his breath, his eyes watering from the coughing fit.

Once they cleared and the dust began to dissipate he found himself staring at the teapot

and cup again. Thanks to the dust, his thirst had grown significantly.

Oh, what the hell. Phil thought. He picked up the teacup, downed the contents then waited

for something to happen. A minute passed and he found that the only thing that had

changed was that he was no longer as thirsty as before. He leaned forward, putting his

elbows on his thighs as he pondered his situation.

He knew that when he had entered the house the foyer and the stairs leading to the second

floor was crammed full of items, and that there had been pathways through it all. One that

lead from the front door to the back of the house, another to the room he now found himself

in which had a path that led from one door to another. Currently it appeared that both doors

led to the same hallway which would be impossible, as was the thought that frail looking

James Conover had moved him to another part of the house. The man was bone thin and

crouched over a cane.

The room looked no different than when he had first entered, save the missing stack of

picture frames that had once neared the ceiling. Phil knew he had to figure a way out,

something nefarious was happening and he was trapped. He feared that if he didn’t manage

to escape, that he would die in this awful room. He didn’t want to die. He was only sixty two,

three years away from retirement and life at the beach house on Hilton Head Island, he and

his wife Lorraine had saved so long for.

He stood then took a few steps towards one door, studying it and the items surrounding it.

He then did the same thing with the other door. They looked identical, including the piles of

refuse through which the pathways went through. Phil shook his head. He was certain that

the room hadn’t looked that way earlier, but couldn’t figure out why things had shifted. He

decided to return to the window and look at things from that point of view. Once there,

everything looked completely different. He wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him,

or if the tea truly was drugged and this was all a hallucination.

“Maybe I can break the windows and just climb out.” Phil said to himself. He looked around

for something he could use to break the window, settling for a bent golf club lying on the floor

under the windows. He stepped back and swung the golf club as hard as he could at the

window, feeling the impact in his arms as the club connected with the glass. To his

surprise, it didn’t break. There wasn’t even a scratch on the glass. The club hadn’t fared as

well, It was bent further before with the club head dangling from where it had partially

disconnected from the shaft. Phil threw the club in frustration, it bounced off a wall before

disappearing into a pile nearby. He spent several minutes trying different objects he found

nearby, including a tricycle which almost gave him a hernia trying to untangle it from the

others. All the tricycle did was bounce off the glass and wrench his already sore back.

On a whim, Phil tried to get himself higher to see if he could find the key to his escape. The

box holding the coffee makers was sturdy enough to hold his weight, but getting to where

he could stand on the wooden box’s edges took work and a level of agility he barely managed.

All the new view revealed was a pile of partially disassembled television sets. Phil lost his

balance climbing down off the box falling into a cardboard box of stuffed animals. Sneezing,

he detangled himself from the toys that smelled of mildew and old urine, getting back to his

feet.

He could see no way out of the room, except through the hallway. He didn’t know where it

led, but he couldn’t stay any longer. He chose a door and stepped into the hallway. There

was a thin layer of dust on the wooden floor, and the musty smell that permeated the living

room was much stronger. He brushed up against one of the racks of clothes scaring up a

couple of moths. Their fluttering about scared Phil so badly, he bumped into one of the

mannequins which had him screeching in fear. He got his terror under control as he righted

the mannequin. It was male, dressed in an out of style suit, with a mustache and long sideburns.

The mannequin’s hair reminded him of when he was much younger

Straightening his own suit jacket, Phil continued down the hallway. The mannequins were all

dressed in a variety of clothing, some dating to long before he was born, all posed the same

way, looking straight ahead, hands to their sides, their bodies turned slightly towards the door

he had just exited. Phil expected doors along the hallway, but none were there. The only

other door was at the end, from which a sliver of light shone from underneath.

Just before Phil opened the door, he turned and looked back the way he had come. All the

mannequins faced away from him but the one he had nearly knocked over in his panic.

It was turned facing him, its head slightly cocked. Phil shuddered as he opened the door

and stepped into the next room.

It was a kitchen. It was small, sparkling clean and hadn’t been updated in at least thirty years.

Not a hint of clutter marred the pristine room. A small table with a single chair sat by a sunny

window overlooking a small yard filled with flowers. Phil’s mouth hung open as he looked around

the room.

“Ah Mr. Sampson, I see that you are the key to my salvation after all.”

Phil whirled about. Before him stood James Conover entered from what looked to be a

bedroom, hunched over his cane with a happy grin on his face.

“Where in the hell have you been?” Phil demanded. “I’ve been calling for you and trying to

get out of that death trap you call a living room for hours.”

“I know.”

Phil stared at Conover to angry to respond.

“I’m sorry it had to be that way, Mr. Sampson, but the house gave me no choice, and I’ve been

waiting for so long to leave.” Conover unbuttoned his sweater with shaking hands.

“The city has been trying to get you to leave for awhile. All you had to do is walk through the

damned door.” Phil growled.

Conover took off his sweater, draping it over the chair. “Oh, I wish it was that easy. But you’ll

see soon enough what the others never got.”

“Others? What others? What are you talking about old man?”

“Oh, you just passed them in the hallway. They were the ones who never left the room. Most

met their fates quickly. Lot of sharp objects in that room.” Conover leaned his cane on the chair.

He put his hands on the small of his back and stretched, the bones in his spine cracking loud

enough to be heard across the room. “Ah, that felt good.”

Phil blinked, Conover didn’t look quite so thin and hunched over. He turned his head to look

at the door he had just come through. “The mannequins used to be–people? How?”

“I’ve never figured it out. They went in as people. They went out…well you saw.” Conover

shrugged as he pulled a tie out of his pocket, fastening it around his neck. “The one who

trapped me here never bothered with details. Hand me that jacket on the hook, please.”

Phil handed Conover the jacket. The man wasn’t making any sense. He was glad that he was

at least willing to leave this creep show that was a house. Then his eye caught the pattern on

the tie. It was of soft orange peaches in a field of blue. The peaches looked like women’s

bottoms according to his boss, which is why he wore it at every opportunity. He looked

down at his own tie, a twin of Conover’s.

“I waited ever so long for you to walk through that door, for anyone to walk through that door.

I was running out of room to put the mannequins or all the things that find their way here.”

Conover tilted his head slightly. “You’ve still not figured out what has happened, have you

Mr. Sampson.

Phil shook his head, while he watched James Conover transform.

I just wish you were younger. Oh, well, I guess I”ll just have to exercise and eat healthy. So I

can enjoy what years I have left. Hopefully the next person to walk through the hallway

doesn’t wait thirty-five years.” The man who now looked just like Phil said. “Yes.This house

is cursed. You are the fourth trapped here. I wish you luck sir, and thank you for my freedom.”

Phil picked up the cane, finding that it helped with his gait that had become slow and

shambling following Conover out of the kitchen, down a wide, trash filled hallway to the

foyer he had been trying to reach for hours. He wanted to knock the man out of the way

and run out the door and not stop until he got home, but his body refused to listen. He

wanted to speak, but he couldn’t. He glanced down at his hand holding Conover’s cane.

It was bone thin and gnarled with the passage of many years. He looked up at Conover,

tears in his eyes, his face pleading.

Hand on the doorknob, James Conover gave a slight bow to the man whose identity he was

taking over. “Word of advice. Invite anyone who comes to the door inside for a cup of tea in

the living room. It’s the only way you can hope to leave, and pray they are young and smart

enough to make their way to you.”

The blustery March wind masked the thin wails of Phil’s screams.

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