Amid the chaotic mess of clothes and stationery lay a broken frame. It contained what she once considered to be her most precious possession. The flames crept from one paper to the next, smoke engulfing the room until her eyes stung. Then came the screaming. Pain shot up from her abdomen to her temples in an unbelievable flash. And that’s when she started falling, falling, falling…
Brenda woke with a start. The familiar darkness of her room hugged her as she tried to steady her breaths. She guessed that the time was somewhere after 0200hr. The dream had been recurring like this since she started receiving the envelopes.
For the past three weeks, THEY – if there was even such a thing – had been sending her envelopes with pieces of her favourite nursery rhyme. The Tuesday note had been the first of three notes. Each one arrived on the corresponding day mentioned in the rhyme. They didn’t seem to follow any particular order and this tripped her up. She couldn’t guess what note would make its way to her door that week. The last one had come on a Thursday afternoon:
They that wash on Thursday
Wash for shame
Toby had been unable to help her decode the meaning. Well, she hadn’t given him a chance to try. He heeded the threat this time and hadn’t visited since the first note arrived. It was for the best, she thought; the less she saw of him, the better.
Brenda switched on her bedside lamp. She must have fallen asleep while reading – the thick novel lay spine-up on the tiled floor. She rubbed her eyes, trying to get her mind off the bad dream. Perhaps a mug of hot chocolate would do the trick.
She shuffled towards the kitchen, welcoming the sharp coolness of the tiles against her sweaty feet. The sound of the water bubbling in the kettle reminded her of Rosy’s gurgling laughter. It was always so easy for her and her laughs were usually preceded by a delighted squeal.
A tiny smile coerced itself onto Brenda’s lips. Rosy had that effect on her. Even in her absence, she could bring joy to her otherwise stoic heart. She was a plump kid, with chubby cheeks that Brenda called ‘cheesecake cheeks’. Her little fat hands, with their dimpled knuckles, were hardly left to rest. One moment she would be “cooking” mud in an empty peanut butter container. The next, she would be dipping them in glitter to spray all over her latest art project. As a result, Rosy always had glitter falling off her person. Brenda had tried to clean it off once, but this made Rosy so upset.
“But you said I’m a star,” she protested.
“Of course, you are Cheesecake. But too much glitter isn’t good for you,” reasoned Brenda.
“But stars shine, don’t they?” came the reply.
“They do, but- “
“Then how on earth am I supposed to shine without the glitter?”
Brenda had let her keep the glitter on after that.
Sipping on the chocolate, she sauntered back to her room. Thinking about Rosy always brought bitter-sweet memories. It had been eight months since they last hung out. The last memory she had was of Rosy’s quiet sobs. Big fat tears cascaded down those round cheeks in a manner ill-fitting for a child. The lack of drama bothered her. Rosy neither protested nor put on a performance. That day, her little Cheesecake looked eerily adult. It almost made Brenda want to stay, but she knew she couldn’t. She also knew now that the look on Rosy’s face would haunt her for the rest of her life. Maybe she would visit…
Brenda immediately tensed up. She held her breath for a solid minute and pricked up her ears. Nothing. She exhaled, trying to relax. Man, I’m such a scaredy-cat, she thought.
She checked the time on her phone – 0241hr. She lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling. Just like all the other times that she’d had the disturbing dream, she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Sunrise was four hours away. She decided to pick her book up and continue where she left off.
It surprised her how she kept going even when she wasn’t sure what the story was about. The words seemed to leave her mind as soon as she read them. As a result, she forgot what the page contained even before she licked her finger and turned to a new one.
The action produced a soft rustle and for a moment she would catch a whiff of the musty smell of an old book. Somehow, turning the pages one by one gave her some sense of accomplishment. Finishing that dreadful book had become her life’s purpose without her even realising it. It was a pathetic purpose, but a purpose nonetheless.
There it was again. She sat up, her back straight as a rod, eyes squinted at the wall as if she could see past it. Her ears strained to hear what was outside.
It took all her will-power to ignore the heavy thudding of her own heart and focus on external noises. Then she heard them.
Her movements were fluid. She slipped out of bed and into her bathroom. Slid the bottom drawer open and extracted a sharp pocket knife. Slid it shut with one foot, the other already turned towards the door.
Back in her bedroom, she wrapped her hands in her Everlast boxing arm wraps with the ease of an expert. She placed the knife carefully on the small of her back, securing it in place with her shorts’ waistband. Then she switched off her light.
An intruder wouldn’t be able to navigate her house in the dark, not like she could. With catlike precision, she slithered from wall to wall until she was right at her front door. Then she waited.
Two minutes – maybe three – went by. Everything was quiet. She could barely hear herself breathe. When did I become so paranoid, she thought. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to relax. Despite the sudden lack of activity outside, she could sense that something was up. Maybe I imagined it. Maybe the person was lost and they are gone now.
A shadow moved up to her door and stopped. Nope, definitely not my imagination.
She inched closer, one hand behind her back, ready to slip out the knife at the first sign of danger.
What kind of burglar knocks first?
Her breath came in short, shallow pants now. The loud thud of her heart provided ominous accompaniment, like a loud drum at an ancient pagan ritual.
Knock, knock, knock.
Brenda wanted to call out, ask who it was, but the words refused to make it out of her mouth. She pounced towards the door and flung it open with her left hand. Her right hand simultaneously pulled out the knife and aimed it at the intruder. One wrong move and she could have slit his throat.
Tobias looked stunned. All he could say was, “Rosy’s gone.”