The Administrator was a tall man, with perfect posture. His beard was dark, thick but had a sharp point, like an Arabian warrior, and his immaculate, spotless, silver suit seemed too perfect, like it wasn’t material, but metal.
He was standing in the doorway of the Health Spa, a China teacup perched upon a saucer, cradled in his palm, the steam of a herbal brew winding from it into the brisk morning air.
“Sir,” pleaded Sonya. “Sir?”
He took a while to turn his head, as if he had not even noticed her and her poorly son shuffle across the road towards him.
He did not say a word, it seemed as if speaking was below him, specifically to her.
She was not well dressed. Clothed in a scruffy cardigan, a headscarf and wearing drab slacks, she clearly had little money to her name and she appeared desperate. Health Spas, as they now called the hospitals, were luxuries for discerning clients, not the riff raff from the sprawls of shacks littering the outskirts.
“Sir,” she repeated, this time finding momentum for her voice, “My son, his name is Daniel, he has heartrot, he’s been diagnosed.”
Her son was taking shallow breaths, leaning on her hard for support. He looked smaller for being swamped in a baggy, ill-fitting jumper, more suited to a teenager.
“Heartrot? Ah yes, a relatively new condition. How exotic…. And, why are you telling me this?”
“Sir, Mr Administrator… Please, please, I beg you. I heard you had spare health pods here, that you were not using. I was praying, if they are not in use… Maybe you could have sympathy for my ten year old son. His name is Daniel. Look at him, please, he is dying. One minute in a pod would cure him. I would never normally dare to ask, I know it’s illegal to beg, but this is our last hope.”
The pod she referred to was visible behind the hospital door, as if the Administrator was a literal gate keeper. It was a white, egg-shaped, man-sized device with cables feeding into it from the ceiling. It almost looked beautiful in its simplistic, aesthetic design.
“I’m begging you. I’ll do anything… Anything,” she repeated.
She was not joking. She loved Daniel more than her own life. She was aware that some Administrators bartered for sex, in exchange for use of their health devices. Many a gossipy afternoon shared with other women from the workhouse, had revealed the oldest currency in the world was still good in emergencies, however distasteful.
The Administrator looked interested by her conviction, in an anthropological way, as if a dog had just barked differently.
He took a cursory glance over his shoulder to peer at the dormant machine, idle in the Health Spa reception.
He leant down to speak direct and loud into the ear of the weasing, struggling boy, feeling the child’s fear and mistrust vibrate from his shivering body.
“I tell you what?” he mused, “If your mother can fill up my teacup with tears, by this evening, I’ll grant you time in the pod.”
Sonya blinked, as if stunned with an electric shock. She had already braced herself for physical abuse, but this, this seemed more humiliating, more shocking a proposal than she could have imagined. But there was an upside, she thought she could do it. Crying was the one thing that was in her, sitting behind the thin facade of her strength, surly – it would just take releasing it and letting it flow.
She looked down at the cup, now somehow appearing larger than before, with the knowledge of her task. The Administrator had outstretched his arm, emptied the tea on the pavement and smiled at her with broad lips.
“You can stay here under the camera, I can check on you from my office.” He was pointing up at the long CCTV camera directly covering the main entrance. “Don’t cheat, I’ll know. Let’s say… By end of play today – so five thirty, just before I lock up. Good luck…”
He smirked, checked his watch, turned and walked back into the Health Spa. All Sonya could hear above the footsteps of his wooden-heeled shoes, was the rhythm of gasps from her son, who was trembling like an injured bird against her hip.
The cup was expensive. It occurred to her instinctively in the back of her mind that she could sell it. But now it was no longer a cup, it was a last opportunity to save the life of her son, a boy she had raised alone with nothing but her wits and scraps since he was born.
She glanced up at the cold lens of the camera, shuffled over to the wall next to the door, helped her son sit and held the cup up to an eyelid. The first tears just fell out, became like streams with gravity pushing them helpfully over the brim of the cup to pool inside the vessel. She just needed to relax into her excruciating mental pain. Each tear rolled and trickled, leaking from her face. Her eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. She imagined her worst nightmares, the ones that she saw fixed everyday but tried to ignore – Daniel’s cheap coffin, his palid, lifeless face, the dark visions that would be reality if she failed.
She noticed people stopping nearby. They were spectating, smiling, poking fun. Some held up their camera phones and snapped away, adding comments, no doubt labelling her insane and ridiculous. Hashtag crazycuplady would trend shortly for the vultures and human parasites out there, checking their phones every five minutes, whilst watching TV or drinking in bars.
Daniel watched them back. In his delirium he presumed he was a movie star celebrity for a moment, something that he would and could never be. It almost pleased him to think of fame, of being noticed by others, instead of ignored.
The city was bustling. Driverless taxis and haulage rolled by intermittently, delivery drones flitted overhead, the beautifully designed skyscrapers far away in the financial quarter, framing the movements, giving depth and atmosphere to the unstoppable pace in the near streets.
Sonya began to moan as she wept. The humiliation was deep, was hurtful and she felt at the lowest ebb her soul could withstand, like concrete was balancing on her chest, pushing her down.
It was only when someone tossed their snack wrapper at Daniel as they walked by that her emotions switched instantaneously to rage. She couldn’t help it, no more than a wave can help crashing on a shoreline. The tears had filled a quarter of the cup already and they had plenty of time. For a second the disgraceful proposition didn’t matter. She bellowed a profanity – for a moment shocking her audience. Her cheeks flushed but her eyes dried, the conduit of her emotions finding an outlet through a ragged, defiant scream. Through it all she held the cup upright.
Some people dispersed, no longer interested in participating in the freak show now the freak was making louder noises, it would demean them, make them part of the show they were previously enjoying as spectators.
A breath, closed eyes. She turned back to her duty. Her son was now looking up at here, trying to suspend his panting in awe and confusion. She let one hand go of the cup to gently ruffle his already disheveled, mousey hair.
“This is just a test,” she said softly. “This is just a test, that we will face together. It will be over soon, you will see. We will find peace again. When people know what you want the most, they make you pay the most, that is just how it all works.”
She broke out a smile and then began to weep again, bringing the cup up to her eye.
It took hundreds of tears to fill it half way, but the truth is, after seven hours, it became harder and harder to force them free, like they were all used up. She felt exhausted. No one was looking anymore. Daniel was now shallow breathing, hardly audible, such was the weakness in his flesh. She had tried in vain to feed him some nuts she had stashed in her pocket, to keep his spirits going. They had used up their juice bottles and the only concept of sustenance left was the cup before them. Her act of crying continued but no tears came.
“I can’t do it. I can’t… Oh God… Why!?” she whispered to the air. Daniel’s eyes were closed.
She lowered the cup to her lap, as she was now cross legged on the pavement. Then a small droplet came from the sky, and then another. Within a few moments, the heavens opened and a trillion tears shed toward her, the drops danced in the cup, tiny liquid explosions forcing the water level higher within moments. The rain was cold, the sky was over-cast and Sonya had no idea how the Administrator would react to this new development. Would the deal be off, would he show pity?
Soon enough, he appeared at the open door to the Health Spa, but there was no emotion that could be read on the immaculate skin upon his face. He had nothing to reveal to her, that would give his thoughts away.
She stood up, pulling Daniel up from his knees. They were both soaked to the skin.
She offered him the cup and held her arm straight, staring into his eyes without so much as blinking through the downpour.
The statuesque figure was just inside the doorway, shielded from the rain.
“I saw you on my screen,” he said, “the rain finished your challenge for you.”
“I cannot control the rain,” she replied, deadpan. “This cup has all my tears. Of that I am sure.”
He was still for what seemed like a long time and then smiled, as if to confirm her truth.
“You did try. However, you did not do what I asked. So… A health pod is expensive treatment. It would take a lifetime of working, for someone like you to afford a single session. It must be strange – to be concerned about illness…You’ll need to do more for me, to pay me. For my satisfaction.”
He took the cup from her, poured the water out on the street and placed it precisely on the reception desk nearby. When he reappeared before her he raked his beard with his long, boney fingers, a rare sign of body language. He was scheming again. She could almost smell the rancour of his mind.
Within that pause, she sank into herself. This was now to be a more predictable, basic exchange, afterall.
“Your son. Leave him here for now, come with me to my office, and if you please me, only then will I grant him supervised access to the pod. You have twenty minutes to please me and I will be leaving after that to lock up the Spa… It’s up to you. How much do you love him?”
She gritted her teeth and nodded. She gestured to her son, now curled up on the wet pavement, dying.
“Can he at least come in from the rain?”
“No,” he replied, “Not on my clean floor.”
Sonya knelt beside the small boy, her only real thing of value in the world, and stroked his face.
“Listen to me. Fight it, please, stay alive. I will be back in twenty minutes and we’ll stop all of this. I love you.”
She kissed Daniel once, stood up and then followed the Administrator through the reception, into his office. The pod had been unused and switched off, all day. She had to stare at it, take it in to make an imprint on her brain, to steel her nerves. It was real, it was a chance.
She felt like she was following her executioner. She knew she would need to go to a place in her mind, find something, somewhere that was not here, not now, nothing like this situation. The Administrator had specified ‘if’ she pleased him. It was another challenge, another hard ultimatum.
She could hear the rain outside fall heavily, throughout the ordeal. Twenty minutes turned into eternity. Each second, a hell unlike any other she could fathom. She had become a series of holes for him, a thing to abuse. She was numb, crying again but this time it didn’t matter either way.
The Administrator was pleased. He finally zipped his fly up and looked down at her, forcing her to meet his eyes.
“Alright, just this once. Fetch your son.”
She fumbled for the office’s door handle and staggered into the reception toward the exit, losing a loose shoe on the way. When she reached the pavement, her son was like a seahorse, curled and washed up on the mud of a beach. Perfectly still, he was a shape inside some rags. He had died in the rain, alone. It was as if he had dissolved into the street, discarded, uncared for, abandoned.
The Administrator appeared with the keys for the Spa in one hand. His shirt was buttoned up again to the collar, his jacket smoothed out from its creases.
He glanced at the little wet body and raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“Oh… He didn’t make it. You must feel dreadful.”
Sonya clenched a fist, turned around and punched him with all her remaining hate, square in the teeth. There was blood. He fell back onto his backside, one hand up defensively, shocked at the indignity of the assault. He could hardly believe it had happened. How dare she.
“You’ll be in a cell within the hour…” he quivered, trying to regain control. “I’ll have you buried in prison for doing that.”
For a second, she glowed with an unconquerable sense of justice. She had something to say herself.
“You’ll be dead by next year, I can promise you that… I thought, a man in your position, a creature like you with all your control and manipulation, with your knowledge of infections, would be more careful. I’m a carrier for something the likes your machine won’t be able to fix. And now, it’s inside you, in your veins and arteries. Your blood is now poison. But then, Administrator, it’s always been poison, hasn’t it?”
His eyes grew in dread and realisation of his mistake. It was like watching a titan crumble into dust. All pretense was now shedding. His perfect, designer shirt had splattered blood streaks where his mouth had bled, the rain was ruining his suit trousers and incredibly, beyond all her expectation, the Administrator began to grimace and weep.
Sonya strode past him, kicking his supporting elbow out as she did, so he squirmed on the shiny floor of his Spa, like a beetle upturned.
She grabbed the China cup on the reception desk, roared in fury and tossed it into his lap.
“Your turn,” she mocked, “good luck!”
Sonya walked out, for the first time in her life devoid of all fear. She stooped down and picked up the shell of her son carefully, held his limp body and faded gradually into the washed out misery of the street. The cascading rain wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket, a delicate but strong embrace of the elements, and she disappeared from view with only a few small steps.