By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: A burglar breaks into an old lady’s home. The occupant invites the burglar to tea and biscuits and won’t take no for an answer.
Ruth carried the full tea kettle to the stove and grimaced as the pain in her finger joints flared for a moment. It didn’t matter what her rheumatologist said. She knew the latest dosage of her prescription wasn’t working.
Might be time for a new prescription. Or a new rheumatologist, she thought sourly. Dr. Miller always used to get the dosage right. This one—Carle? Collin?—he’s young enough to be my grandson and thinks he can tell me what I need to take! Fancy diploma on the wall doesn’t mean he knows what medicine a body needs.
It took two tries before she managed to heave the kettle onto the coiled burner. She reached for the knob at the head of the stove and gave it a hard push into its base before turning it to the right. Pain caused her thumb to buckle onto her other fingers. She grimaced again, and the stove creaked and tinkled in agreement.
Just then the doorknob on the door leading from the kitchen to the matchbox-sized backyard rattled. Ruth turned and watched the knob turn a quarter of an inch and then stop. It turned back in the other direction; then she heard something click.
Several clicks later the doorknob turned again, this time all the way, and the door pushed inward. A head covered in a ski mask craned into the kitchen, and the eyes in the mask spotted her. The head jerked back in surprise.
“Peter, honey, is that you?” she asked. She toddled to the door and opened it all the way. The person in the ski mask, still holding onto the knob, stumbled slightly as the door pulled him in.
“I’m not Peter, lady,” the male voice stated, the lips disembodied from the rest of the face. The man brandished a gun. “Give me everything you’ve got that’s valuable. Now.”
“Now, Peter, how many times have I told you not to bring your gun into the house?” Ruth said, cocking her head in disapproval. “Put that away and come have some tea with me.”
The man blinked in confusion, but Ruth paid him no mind. Her arthritic fingers curved in invitation as she motioned with her hand and turned back to the tea kettle. It would start whistling any minute now. She could hear the water bubbling, and she wanted to make sure she had Peter’s cup ready too.
“Lady, are you freaking kidding me?” the man said, holding his arms wide, the gun an L-shaped extension of his right hand. “Give me your money and any jewelry, and you won’t get hurt.”
“Come now, this isn’t a practice session you’re doing at the station,” Ruth said. “I made the biscuits you liked this morning. I had a feeling you would come back today. Now, wash your hands and get the plates while I make the tea.”
The ski mask turned in one direction and then another. “Is this—are you for real, lady? No, let me guess, this is one of them freaking reality shows, right?”
“And take off that ridiculous mask,” Ruth went on, ignoring his question. “This isn’t the weather at all for those sorts of things. Are you just coming back from a stakeout, is that why you’re wearing it?”
“Oh, my god, you’re off your rocker! Do you get what’s happening right now? Do you—”
Ruth slammed her hand on the counter, causing the creamer to jump. The movement sent sparks of pain shooting into her elbow, but she ignored them.
“Don’t you dare talk to your mother that way! Just because you’re a grown man doesn’t mean you can be disrespectful! Do as I tell you, and don’t you dare argue with me again. I don’t want to hear another word until you’ve taken off that mask, washed your hands, and gotten the plates.”
The man stared at her a long moment, his blue eyes boring into hers. Ruth stared right back. She wouldn’t let a little impudence get in the way of her teaching a child manners, no matter how old they were.
The kettle whistled long and hard, and the masked man jerked. Ruth continued to stare at him. After a few more moments of the showdown, he sighed long and hard and pulled the mask off. He ran his fingers through his red hair.
“Good, so you do remember how to listen to your mother,” Ruth said. She went to the stove and turned it off. “The plates are in that cupboard over there, like they’ve always been.” She motioned with an index finger that didn’t seem to want to uncurl all of the way. “Wash up and come sit at the table with me.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see him shake his head. The head shake seemed to convey a lot of things: annoyance; impatience; but most of all an incredulity that he was listening to her. She pursed her lips and turned her attention back to the tea cups and the tray she’d left on the counter earlier in the day.
“Where do you want ‘em?” the man asked.
“Just put them on the table, please. Butter’s in the butter dish in the fridge. If you want jam, you can find that in the fridge too. The biscuits are in the pantry.”
The plates landed on the small square table with a clatter, and he opened and closed the fridge with roughness. Another clatter announced the arrival of the jam on the table, and then the man yanked open the pantry door. He stood there for a moment staring at the shelves.
“Biscuits are right there on the platter in front of you.”
“Yeah, no, I see ‘em. It’s just…”
She grunted as she lifted the tray with the sugar, creamer, two cups, and the tea kettle, now covered in a cozy, and brought it to the table.
“Just what, Peter?”
“It’s just…I’ve never seen so much food all in the same spot in a house before.”
“Well, that’s because you don’t eat properly. If you didn’t take on double shifts all the time, you’d be home more often and would get a chance to eat a home-cooked meal like you should. Honestly, you can’t be the only policeman in the entire town, now, can you?”
His back stayed toward her for a moment, and she put a fist on her hip.
“Biscuits, young man, and be quick about it.”
He grabbed the tray and brought it to the table. She pulled out her chair and gripped the table hard as she lowered herself into her seat. From this angle he looked even taller.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked. She gestured to the chair opposite her. “Sit. Have some tea with your mother like you promised ages ago you would.”
The man heaved a huge sigh and dropped into the chair on the other side of the table.
“Lady, you know I’m not Peter, right?”
“Shh, I’m going to say grace.”
She opened her hand and stared at him expectantly until he placed his hand in hers. The skin on his fingers was rough and dry. Clearly he hadn’t been drinking enough water. Everyone knew drinking water kept the body hydrated.
She bowed her head, not bothering to see whether he did the same.
“For what we’re about to receive, let the Lord make us truly grateful. Amen.”
“Amen,” he echoed with resignation.
She opened her eyes and smiled wide. “Now, why don’t you tell your mother why you haven’t been to see her in so long?”
The man sat with mouth gaping. His lower jaw moved up and down a few times before he finally responded. “I, um…I’ve been…busy. With work.”
Ruth clucked her tongue in disapproval. “Well, we’ll just have to change that, won’t we?”
He stared at her hard for moment and then looked down in embarrassment. “Yeah, I guess…I guess we’ll have to.”