Sarah shut her cell phone with a heavy sigh, Mr. Clyde’s voice still echoing in her head.
She and her sisters had been designed to read tone of voice, to pick up on every waver, every hesitation, every minuscule shift in timbre or volume.
When Mr. Clyde had said “good work,” his vocal prosody had told her to brace herself for what came next. Sure enough, he had chuckled and said “you took a little too long, though.” His voice had been a mockery of friendly amusement, with a venomous undercurrent that many people would have missed. Somehow, it was worse than the times he shouted at her.
It was early enough for the building to be nearly empty, with only a few workaholic early birds scattered through the office. She had the break room to herself, and about ten minutes to spare before the car came to take her to the air park.
She took one of the blue and white mugs emblazoned with CPSI’s hexagonal eyesore of a logo and filled it with hot water from the dispenser. She selected a teabag without looking at the box labels. All the cheap break room teas tasted the same anyway.
She wrapped her hands around the mug, holding near her face, closing her eyes, and breathing in the steam.
This cup of tea was as much a punishment for herself as it was a reward. The warmth and the smell comforted her while dredging up painful memories at the same time.
She watched the microwave clocks, watching the time as it changed from 6:44, 6:45, 6:46… It made her nervous to stand idle for so long, but she couldn’t stop a familiar dulcet voice from piping up in her head.
‘Some idiots just sip the tea without even leaving it time to steep. Patience and discipline are two of the rarest, most precious qualities someone can have. They’re part of what makes you a work of art, 131.’
The part about her being a work of art had been a lie, of course, but even now, it made her want to wait for her tea to finish steeping just so she could make the lie a little more true.
After four minutes, she removed the teabag, squeezing it between her fingers before discarding it in the trash. The tea was hot when she sipped it, probably hot enough to burn a real person. It tasted terrible, just like she remembered.
Sarah had told Melanie she didn’t experience loyalty, but that hadn’t been entirely true. She believed she’d felt true loyalty once. Well, as close to true loyalty as an imitation of a human could get, anyway.
She owed everything to the Clydes. They had saved her life, rescued her from an existence of torture and suffering and given her a purpose. But the loyalty she felt to them paled in comparison to pure devotion she’d felt once before.
It had been devotion so intense, she could almost imagine what real people experienced when they fell in love. The betrayal had made her feel she could almost grasp the phrase ‘heartbreak’. It had left a strange, heavy, devastating sensation, a hollow ache in a chest full of nerves that couldn’t process pain.
“Hi. I don’t think I’ve seen you around the office.” A voice from beside her startled her from her thoughts. “Are you new?”
Sarah turned to see a young pregnant woman pouring hot water into a mug.
“Nope.” Sarah plastered on a smile. “I’m visiting from Palmer, actually.”
“Wow, we don’t get a lot of visitors from Palmer. Is it your first time in the Charlotte office?”
“I actually used to work here, once upon a time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been up here, though.”
“What kind of tea are you having?” said the woman.
“I’m not sure. To be honest, they all kinda taste the same.” Sarah checked the teabag wrapper she’d left on the counter. “Darjeeling, apparently.”
“The break room tea is awful,” said the woman. “I have a theory that all the tea is the same, and they just put it in different types of boxes. I usually just bring my own.”
The woman opened an attractive metal tin with a floral pattern and placed a teabag into her mug. She offered the tin to Sarah.
“Do you want to try some? It’s Darjeeling too, but like, actual Darjeeling. Well, decaffeinated Darjeeling, anyway. It’s better for the baby.” The woman smiled. “It’s still better than the stuff from those boxes. I know you already made yours, but maybe you could dump it out?”
Something about the woman in that moment–some note of her voice, her large dark eyes, the way she offered the tea–was painfully, achingly familiar.
“Is something wrong?” The woman laughed nervously. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, saying you should dump out your tea.”
“Nope,” said Sarah. “You’re fine! It’s just… has anyone ever told you that you’ve got real pretty eyes?”
“I do?” The woman laughed again, bashful. “No, they’re just brown.”
“Brown eyes are warm. They’re nice.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. “No one’s ever complimented my eyes before.”
Sarah’s phone buzzed in her pocket.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Um, okay,” said the woman. “It was nice meeting you.”
Sarah took a final sip of tea, placed her mug on the counter, and started toward the doorway.
“Thanks for offering the tea,” she said, “even if I didn’t have time to try it.”
“Sorry,” said the woman. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m not important,” said Sarah as she turned the corner to the elevator. “I’m no one.”