The Last Tea Party
By Cathy Marie Bown
She walks into the playroom, with its pastel pink walls and lavender carpet, toys lining all of the walls in haphazard arrays. In the center of the room, the woman sets up ivory ceramic teacups, saucers, silverware, a sugar bowl, and a creamer pitcher. She struggles to keep the dishes steady, her hands shaking as she puts everything in its place, the dishes chattering along with her shaking hands. Usually, they use plastic dishes for their tea parties, but she wants to surprise the child since this will be the last tea party. When the dishes are perfect, she moves back out the door, returning with a small container. Inside are the child’s favorite sugar cookies, decorated lovingly in pastel colors.
The woman is cautious about where she places the cookies. Each one has been hand decorated with care. In front of the chair where the small girl will sit, she puts a cookie decorated like a princess and a prince. In front of her chair, she places a rose cookie and a carriage. In the spot where her teddy bear, Mr. Snuggles, will sit, she places a teddy bear cookie and a daisy. She carefully places a purple butterfly cookie and red heart cookie on the other empty plate. The woman’s sister will be sitting in that spot, closest to the girl.
Satisfied that the cookies are perfect, she leaves the room again and returns with a teapot that matches the rest of the dishes. Instead of tea, it is filled with apple juice, the child’s favorite drink. She places the pot in the center of the table. She looks at the clock on the wall.
Fifteen minutes until the child will be here for her tea party.
The woman thinks about leaving. It would be so easy to do, she tells herself. It would be less painful than watching the girl, her only reason for living, be taken away from her forever. When the tea party is over, the woman knows her life will be over as well. She never wants this tea party to end.
But the end must come, and she knows why. Everything that has happened in the last forty-eight hours has led to this tea party. And, though she never wants it to end, she is eternally grateful that she gets to have this party. If only she knew the words that she would tell the child.
Whatever words she used wouldn’t be enough. She knew that. But, somehow, she would have to find the words anyway. And she believed that one day in the distant future, the woman sharing this tea party with them would explain to the child just how much she was loved.
Ten minutes to go now.
The child was outside playing with the woman’s sister, the child’s aunt. She didn’t know anything was different, except they had a special visitor. The woman left them outside to play so she could prepare their weekly tea party. Every Wednesday for the past three years, they had a tea party. Always with the plastic dishes. Oh, but the girl admired the ceramic tea set, kept high on a shelf. The woman had promised the girl that when she was older they could use it for their tea parties. That would never happen now, so why not use them today.
The aunt would continue the tea parties. The woman was sure of that. She had promised to keep the child on her schedule for as long as possible, slowly shifting her to the routine she would carry on within the aunt’s care. Her life would be so different now than the woman had planned. But that wasn’t her fault, not really. The woman had done everything in her power to protect the child.
When she had come home from the grocery store too soon two days ago, having forgotten her wallet, the woman had walked into a quiet house. When she looked for the child and her father, who should have been playing in the yard, she found them in the basement. The poor child, naked and crying. The man, naked with a video camera. The woman attacked him. The child ran away and hid in her bedroom. When it was over, the man was dead, and the woman had hidden his body.
At the hospital, they examined the child and asked her questions she was too young to understand. The woman told the doctors what she had seen. She told them the father had run away after the child disappeared. She told them she chased the man, but she quit following him to care for the girl. Nobody asked her if she hurt him.
They focused on the girl. She told police her daddy had hurt her. She was scared of him. She wasn’t scared of her mommy. Her mommy had saved her. She loved her mommy. They treated the girl and sent her home. The aunt came to stay.
Five minutes until time for the tea party.
The tears the woman refused to cry threatened her eyes as she remembered. She pulled a tissue from her pocket and wiped her eyes. She wonders how it came to this. She searches for the warning signs she missed. She wonders how many times the man had hurt the child before.
The police had come to the house this morning to search. They had found lots of tapes in the man’s office. They had searched the entire house. They found the basement. They found the blood. The woman begged them to give her this tea party, just an hour with her daughter, to say goodbye, and she would tell them where they could find the body. They knew she would not flee. Police officers surrounded the house. The girl could not see them in the backyard, but she knew they were there. Her aunt told her they were to protect her from the evil man, her father. The child said she was not afraid because her mommy would protect her.
They gave her one hour to prepare the party and to complete it. She would be taken away when that hour was up, and the girl would be processed and released to the aunt. It was all taken care of through the woman’s lawyer.
A soft knock on the door alerted her that it was time. The woman wiped her eyes, stood up, and opened the door. The child, excited from playing, gave her mother a hug then bounced to her chair. She was excited about the cookies. She thanked her mother for making them.
The child calmed herself, went to her toybox, and pulled out a dress. She brought the dress to her mother, who helped pull it on over her play clothes. The woman was already wearing a fancy princess dress, chosen just for this moment. The aunt was wearing jeans and a sweater. The girl brought her aunt a tiny tiara and a princess wand from the toy box. The aunt put the tiara on and held the wand with a strained smile for the child. She kept looking at the woman, but she was only looking at the girl.
The two women, the girl, and the teddy bear ate their cookies and drank their juice in true princess fashion. Comments about the weather were made, and the girl complimented Mr. Snuggles on his table manners, which were very good for a bear. The girl corrected her aunt on drinking her tea too quickly; a princess never rushes. The aunt blushed. The tea party continued in this manner until the juice and cookies were gone. The woman knew her time had run out.
She said the girl’s name. The girl looked at her. The woman told her she had to go away for a while. Hopefully, not forever, but for a long time. The girl told her not to go. The woman told her she had to because she needed to protect the girl, and this was the only way to do that.
The little girl cried. She asked where she would go. The woman told her she would be going to stay with the aunt. The aunt promised to take good care of her, tea parties on Wednesday, the library on Friday, and ice cream at the park on Sunday. Yes, Mr. Snuggles was coming with, too. And her toys. And her clothes. And, of course, her tricycle.
The woman told the girl it was time for her to go. The child cried, begging her mother to stay. The woman hugged the girl, promising to think about her every day. Mommy, please don’t forget me. I could never forget my sweet princess. Their tears mixed on their cheeks as they cuddled as close as possible for one more minute.
A knock on the door told them their time was up. The woman kissed the girl. The woman kissed her sister. They promised to visit as soon as they could. They said how much they loved each other. The woman handed the crying, hysterical child to her sister, kissing the child one more time. She whispered goodbye. As she let go of the child and turned away, the gentle tears turned to rivers of sorrow draining from her eyes. She walked out the door, closing it softly behind her.
The woman looked up and saw the officer waiting for her. She would not regret what she had done, and she would not apologize for ridding the world of a predator. She was only sorry she had gotten caught and couldn’t stay with her daughter. She put her hands out in front of herself, took a deep breath, and told them where to find the body of her husband.