Mona gave her watch another anxious glance as she turned the Bunsen burner to a low flame. It was 1:41 PM, and Ivan and the others would be back from their lunch breaks soon. If she didn’t hurry, they’d return and question what she was doing. She wouldn’t have a good explanation.
They would try to stop her, when what she was doing was far more important than any of the menial work she did for CPSI. Somehow, it felt like one of the most important things she’d ever do.
She pulled a bottle of water and four glass jars from her oversized bag and lined them in a row on the table. She’d found the bag in the back of her closet–a gift she’d received long ago and never used because it was cumbersome and had far more space than she usually needed. Today, it was so full the strap left a painful indent on her shoulder, and its contents bulged unattractively inside it.
She pulled the saucepan from her bag, placed it on the table, and poured the water into the pan. She unscrewed each jar lid, then lifted the saucepan over the flame with one hand. With the other hand, she emptied three of the jars into the pan one by one–first the tea powder, then the sugar, and finally the spices. She slid a heat-resistant safety glove onto one hand, then pulled a wooden spoon out of her bag and held it in the other.
With her gloved hand, she lifted the pan over the flame, moving it around so it heated evenly and stirring it with the spoon. After a few minutes, it began to bubble, and the lab filled with the spicy, earthy-sweet scent of cardamom and cinnamon.
She poured in the final jar–the milk–and stirred the pot with the spoon. The muscles in her arm were beginning to ache from the weight of the metal pot, but she ignored the pain.
The milk began to bubble and froth, blooming into a foam that threatened to spill over the edge of the pot. Mona turned down the flame. She hadn’t spilled something in as long as she could remember, and she wasn’t about to start today.
She waited for a few more minutes, giving the pan an occasional careful stir, until the aroma deepened and the tea darkened to a shade of rich tan. She switched off the flame and placed the spoon on a paper towel she’d laid on the table. Still holding the pan, she reached one arm into her bag and felt around until she found the strainer she’d brought. She placed the strainer over a mug she’d taken from the breakroom, then poured the tea from the pan in a thin, delicate stream.
Her biceps twinged with relief as she placed the pan on the table, then set the spoon and strainer inside it. She picked up the mug, breathing in the fragrance and taking a moment to admire her work–the rich color, the sweet, spicy aroma. It was perfect, of course. She had made it, after all.
And she’d made it for the perfect person.
She set down her bag and carried the mug out the door, walking down the hall toward the fab chambers. Leaving the pan and spoon in the lab made her a little nervous, but she’d already finished making the tea. It’s not as though they could force her to unmake it.
Not that a smug brat like Ivan could have forced her to do anything, of course. But she didn’t want to deal with him trying. It would have only made her angry.
She could see 131 on the other side of the glass, sitting on her flat, prison-like cot, eyes fixed on the wall in front of her. The sight left a weight in Mona’s chest.
She imagined taking 131 by the arm, whisking her out the door and down the hall to freedom. For a moment, she pictured herself driving down a long, remote stretch of freeway, 131 in the passenger seat, the two of them headed together into some great unknown, the wind whipping through their hair in a way Mona would have hated in reality. She chastised herself inwardly for the silly mental image.
Still, if she and 131 ran off together, Mona didn’t know where they would have gone or what they would have done, but she knew it would have been something great.
She wasn’t normally the type of person to act on a whim, but if it weren’t for the thought of her children growing up without her, she might have acted on this one.
Instead, she pressed the button, sliding open the door to the cell. 131 looked up, her eyes brightening as they met Mona’s.
Mona entered the chamber, placing the cup on the flat metal surface beside the sorry excuse for a bed.
“Hi, 131,” she said. “I have a surprise for you today.”
“A surprise? What is it?”
“Well, you know how every day I bring you that watered-down garbage breakroom tea?”
“It’s not garbage. It’s basically the only thing I have to look forward to.”
“It’s garbage,” said Mona. “You deserve so much more to look forward to than that. So I made you this.”
131 picked up the cup.
“It smells so good. What is it?”
“Masala chai. I had to use a Bunsen burner in the lab, but I made it while everyone else was on lunch.”
“You made this?” 131 stared up at her, eyes wide. “For me?”
“Yes, of course. Try it.”
131 lifted the cup to her lips and sipped. When she lowered it, her lip was trembling.
“Well? What do you think?”
131 opened her mouth to reply, but a sob escaped her lips instead as tears spilled down her face.
“Sorry,” said 131. “I… I know you hate when people cry, but… but no one ever made me anything special before.”
Mona wrapped her arms around 131, pulling her close. She could feel 131 shake, her tears soaking into Mona’s shirt collar as she cried into her shoulder.
The weight in Mona’s chest grew heavier as she ran her hand over 131’s hair.