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  • Jordan Keller

Kale's Tea Time (A Short Story)

Andersonville was the kind of small-town with not much to look at – unless you knew where to look, and Kale Foster knew exactly where to set his sights.

Following the map found under the squeaky floorboard of his grandfather's tool shed, the middle schooler crawled under the iron gates of Andersonville’s only cemetery. During the daylight hours, the iron gate was unlocked and kept open. One switchback road led visitors to their loved ones, and monotoned headstones populated the ground along with wild-growing clover. Fresh flower bouquets created pops of color, waving flags created movement, offerings of food created an underlying smell of decay.

At night, that smell caused Kale to envision rotting hands reaching for the melted Snicker bars and unwrapped fast-food burgers. Kale swallowed, steeled his nerves, double-checked the map, and crept along the lonely road.

He jumped as a pinwheel spinner moaned in a gust of wind. A gust of wind that Kale hadn’t felt, a gust that hadn’t kicked up any leaves, but it had to be the wind, right?

Why didn’t I ask Marie to come!

His occult-loving neighbor would not have feared whatever made the pinwheel spinner move. If it wasn’t the wind. But it was the wind. It had to be. Besides, if he asked her to come, he’d have to split the treasure that was surely at the end of the map. Why else would there be an X stamped onto the wrinkly parchment?

The higher Kale climbed the switchback, the colder the air became. It wasn’t the crisp summer night air you could ward off with a long-sleeve T-shirt. This was a cold he remembered from the fall. From Halloween nights. His breath burst before him in a puff of steam. Around him, the cemetery was quiet. Dead quiet. The headstones stretched into their shadows and formed gaping holes in the ground.

Something tugged at the back of Kale’s shirt.

Something that wasn’t the wind.

He ran forward. The map snapped with each frantic step. Kale ran until his lungs burned from the ridiculously cold air inside them. He collapsed onto his hands and knees, sucking down deep yet painful breaths until he no longer tasted rust in his mouth.

When he looked up, his ragged scream escaped with a burst of steam. The white cat sitting across from him blinked her green eyes, unaffected by his outburst but perhaps a little annoyed. Her black tail twitched behind her. Kale stared at the cat. His heart finally ticked at a normal speed and the cat meowed before turning down the road. She looked over her shoulder to see if Kale followed.

The intelligence in her eyes made him do so.

The cat led Kale along the same path depicted on the map. This section of the cemetery was familiar to Kale. An ancient tree grew so close to the road its roots created speed bumps under the pavement. The headstone closest to the road had a laser ingrained photo of the woman and her dog that were buried below it. The headstone for Kale’s grandparents sat beside it. Four months ago, there had only been one name on the dark and reflective surface. Last month a second name was added. Last month Calvin Foster joined his wife Emmaline after the cancer came for him, too.

Kale walked across the squishy grass and stood at the headstone. The memories of both their funerals flashed through his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut to block them out. He tried to remember better memories: the three of them dying Easter eggs last year, sitting on their front porch with sweet teas in hand, tractor rides, sleepovers, handwritten cards. The memories only made Kale sadder.

The cat meowed and Kale opened his eyes to find her sitting atop the stone, her black tail swishing behind her. She meowed again, this one sounding impatient. Kale checked his map. They were close to the X.

“Okay.” Kale ran the back of his hand under his nose. “Let’s get going.”

The cat leaped off the stone and they weaved through headstones, angelic statues, and dying flowers.

A stone arch raised from the ground atop a hill adorned with white-tipped clovers glowing in the moonlight. Deep cracks ran through the stone like scars and no headstone was closer than twenty feet neat it. Kale checked his map; the X was on the other side of the arch. Kale had never seen this arch before.

The cat sat under it and meowed.

“Are you sure?” Kale asked, peering through the arch he saw the other side of the cemetery and Andersonville’s only water tower.

The cat flicked her tail and passed through the arch.

She did not reemerge on the other side.

“Hey wait!” Kale called as every pinwheel spinner groaned together in the not-there wind. The spongy grown started to shake. The smell of decay turned into the fresh scent of rot. Kale ran through the arch.

The sudden sunshine blinded Kale, and he raised his hand to block the light. The ground was still soft, still covered in clovers, the cat still meowed at him. Kale lowered his hand and saw the same cemetery although colored in pastels like a children’s book. Constructed before him stood a cottage with purple smoke puffing out of a stone chimney. Garden tables were situated around the headstones with occupants drinking tea from fancy cups and saucers.

Kale gasped. Most of the guest’s bottom halves became wispy tails like the ghost decorations his mom put up in October. Their entire shapes turned fuzzy around the edges. He stepped back and bumped into something solid.

“Hey kid,” smiled a woman in a sunhat. The cat was perched on her shoulder and swatted at her bobble earring. “Dining in?”

Kale stared at her blankly. The cat meowed in her ear.

“A visitor,” she smiled. “I think someone here wanted you to visit them. Why don’t you check the tables? I’ll send you home when you’re ready.”

“Send me home?” Kale asked, each word its own question. “Where am I?”

“The Spectral Tea House,” the woman nodded proudly. “We’ve been serving ghosts for over three hundred years.”

“Ghost!”

Ignoring the fear in Kale’s voice, the woman continued. “Just because you’ve moved on doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good tea and pastry every now and again.” She pushed Kale toward the tables. “Go find your party, I’ll bring you a menu when you’re seated.”

Kale turned back to her. “Am I dead?”

Both the woman and her cat laughed. She tapped her solid toe against his solid toe. “You’re alive. You’re just visiting.”

The woman whisked away before Kale could ask any more questions. He turned in a circle looking for the arch, his ticket home, but found it completely gone. Everything from his world, the water tower, the pinwheel spinners, the Snicker bars, were gone.

“Hey, Kale Bear!”

Kale’s heart swelled at the nickname only his grandmother called him. He slowly turned around and saw her and his grandfather sitting at a table with a pitcher of sweet tea between them.

“Bout time you found that map of mine.” Kale’s grandfather winked at him.






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