Tara stood frozen in place, her hand on the door knob, her blood turning into a cold river of blueberry Slurpee in her veins. People had been telling her all her life that she was just paranoid. They had told her that there was no reason to spend so much time and energy avoiding sitting by windows in restaurants, or logging the cars that parked in front of her house at night. Once in college, a friend had refused to get in the car with her ever again after she realized that Tara paid less attention to the road than to trying to determine if the cars behind her were following them.
“Tara,” people often said, “you are an accountant with no secrets. Why would anyone be out to get you?” to which she would smile and nod politely, but she knew.
Now she stood frozen with her hand on the knob because it had finally happened. Someone was in her house. It wasn’t likely to be a break-in, because the alarm wasn’t going off. A good assassin or a government goon could have gotten in easily, but not a common criminal. She knew that they were in there because she had seen the curtains move slightly out of the corner of her eye. It wasn’t more of a move than a slight breeze would cause, but she would never have left a window open.
She forced herself to take a long slow breath of the muggy night air, trying to clear her mind. It was buzzing with possible scenarios, but no solutions.
She took a few steps quickly away from the door, making the three paces to the hedge in less than a second, then she ducked around the hedge, hiding herself from the window.
She contemplated calling Sarah as she walked back to her car, noticing that there were a few cars parked on the street that weren’t normally there. She pulled the phone from her pocket and looked at it. An image of Cat Stevens, when that was still his name, looked back at her from behind a guitar, his “Best Of” collection being the last album she had listened to. His face was usually comforting and kind, but in her current mood, even his kind eyes looked sinister and cold. She shivered, swiping the screen to unlock it, then stopped.
She knew exactly what Sarah would say. The same thing she always said. She would tell her to knock it off and go inside. She wouldn’t understand that this time it was really happening, for this wolf had been cried far too many times already. Besides, Sarah had said something about a date earlier when Tara had asked her about her evening plans; she might not pick up anyway. Thinking about it now, though, Tara realized that Sarah had seemed weird and resistant to volunteer information about the date. Sarah loved talking about her love life, had she been lying? Could she be involved?
Tara stopped, about to get in behind the wheel, her eyes running up and down the street, analyzing the intruding cars bathed in the yellow of the streetlights. Colors looked different under yellow lights, but one of them was definitely Sarah’s car.
Tara’s head started to spin and her knees felt weak, suddenly she was fighting to catch her breath and leaned heavily against the car for support. What if Sarah had gotten caught up in something bad? What if her unwillingness to catalog every person she met, tripple lock her door, and encrypt her hard drive with a 32 character passkey had left her vulnerable? What if They had found Sarah as the weak spot in Tara’s defenses and had her tied up in Tara’s living room? What would they do to her if Tara didn’t show?
“Shit,” she said aloud, the sound barely more audible than a breath, as she noticed that another one of the intruding cars was her brother’s new car. He was another weakness.
She stood there for a long time, slowly regaining control of her breath, watching the edge of the hedge. She stayed ready to duck into the car and take off if someone came around into view. Nobody did.
The realization that her best friend and her brother were probably tied up in her living room at gun point terrified her, but melted her resolve to run away. Once she felt comfortable standing on her own, she went to her trunk and pulled out the baseball bat that she kept there, then made her way to the small walkway that led back to her neighbor’s backyard.
It was easy to make her way silently into the back yard, then hop the fence into her own; needing to sneak into her own back yard was a scenario that she had considered regularly. She was well practiced at opening the back door without letting out the squeak that she wouldn’t let the landlord oil away. The back door opened into her small kitchen, only lit by the faint ambient light trickling in through the one small window. The light made long, ghostly shadows and made everything the blacks and grays of a dirty charcoal sketch. She could see something too black to be anything but blood smeared on the counter and choked back a whimper. She touched it, and immediately regretted the decision. It was cold and clung to her finger, making vomit start to push its way up past the high pitched whine that she knew was only barely contained. She swallowed both back with great effort. If the blood was cold, it had been a while since it had been bled; whoever had been bleeding may not have much time. Tara tried not to think about what was on her finger and wiped it on her jeans with a grimace.
She raised her bat to the ready position and moved to the door that stood closed between the kitchen and living room. Pressing her ear to the surface of the door, she listened to the breathing on the other side. There was a bored sounding sigh. They had no idea she was here.
She threw the door open, not intending to waste the small amount of advantage her surprise would give her. She rushed into the room and aimed for the shape of a man silhouetted by the light from the window, probably the one that had tipped her off by moving the curtain. She hit him in the stomach folding him in half over the bat with a loud “Omph!” Before he had even finished crumpling to the ground, she had turned towards the movement she had seen to her left and swung, her favorite lamp exploding into a shower of clay and glass as the bat made contact.
Feeling large arms around her from behind, she tried to bring the butt of the bat into the person’s stomach, but the angle of the swing made it weak and suddenly she was completely restrained, but she refused to give up. She fought and thrashed. Then the lemon juice sensation of bright lights tore through her eyes as someone turned on the light. She couldn’t see at first, it was too bright, and at some point she had started to cry.
“Tara,” said the voice of the man behind her, “stop.”
She knew that voice. She tried to look, but couldn’t turn. Then her eyes came into focus on the ten people standing in her living room with shocked expressions and party hats on. They all stood beneath a hand-made banner that read “Happy B-day Tara!”
Her boss was there, as was her mom, and all of her friends. Sarah stood in the middle holding a chocolate cake and a facial expression of such confused shock that it looked uncomfortable. “Holy shit, Tara…” her mother managed.
“Surprise?” said Sarah slowly.
“I think I need to go to the hospital,” groaned her brother from the ground.
I caught myself a leprechaun, so he owed me wishes three.
We both knew that when he grant them, I would set him free.
Obviously my first wish was for a sizable pot of gold.
He yawned and stared at me, then said, “that’s kind of old,”
“The oldest wish in the book, me thinks. I thought you’d try something new.”
“Okay,” said I, “I’ll think of some’n else. Just give me a minute or two.”
“What about fame or power?” I asked, “can I have one of those?”
“Or maybe, just trim away this fat, so I can see my toes?”
“Sure you can,” he stated, “but are you sure you gave it thought?’
“Cuz if you’re curious, I’ve been asked before, and happy they were not.”
We went on like this for a long time, every thought failed to impress.
A toll it took on my self esteem, until I was quite depressed.
I tried to think of a good wish, I wracked my brain all day,
and finally decided to just wish he’d go away.
The cars blowing past roared so loudly that Mr. Snuggles’ dirty, soot covered, fur vibrated in response. If the Teddy bear had contained a skeleton, the concussive force of the sounds would have resonated in his bones as well, but he didn’t; he was full of white, fluffy stuffing. The busy roadway was almost always active and Mr. Snuggles hadn’t had a moment of peace in the three days since he had been abandoned – lost. “Lost, I was lost, not abandoned,” he had initially corrected himself, “Theodore will be back for me.”
He had hoped that it would only be a matter of time before that blue truck pulled up, the same truck that held the box he had been crammed into for the move. He had been relieved at first when the box popped open and he had the space to move a little, but when the truck hit a bump and Mr. Snuggles became airborne, said relief had given quick way to terror. He had watched from the side of the road as that blue pickup barreled on up the hill, his Theodore sitting in the passenger seat, smiling off into the distance.
The cold, noisy, gravel-strewn roadway was far removed from the suffocatingly plush, soft, and warm bed he was used to. When that truck pulled up and Theodore came running out, swooping him up into those scrawny, little arms, Mr. Snuggles presumed he will have learned a thing or two about appreciating what he had. But as the days had dragged on, this possibility had slowly evaporated, leaving behind only the smallest stain of hope. Eventually his expectation that his boy would come back for him turned to hopes that anyone would pick him up. He could have a new child, even these bored faces would be better than the road.
The bear tried to pass the time by waving at the small faces he saw in the cars, but most of them looked off into the boring distance and didn’t see him. A few did see him, but they just stared, their expressions stupid and blank like the cow that sometimes visited the fence on the other side of the road.
He thought about the look of wonder that had spread across Theodore’s face when he had opened the box on his birthday and found a bear the same size as himself inside. That was Mr. Snuggles’ favorite look; the look that started in the eyes as a glint of curiosity then quickly transitioned through recognition seamlessly into wonder. It rippled out from the eyes to the eyebrows then the cheeks and mouth, stretching them all in expectant joy. There were no hints of that look on the slack faces of the children that watched a dirty teddy bear waving his arms in the winds of passing cars. Longing to be held again had turned to just a need to see that sense of wonder in the eyes of a child again, so he danced and waved wildly.
Still, only a few of the children saw him, and instead of wonder, they wore pity, or sadness. One such little girl went past now. Her mom’s crimson minivan didn’t decelerate, but as Mr. Snuggles and the little girl locked eyes, everything seemed to slow slightly, the girl saw him and he could see that she understood. For a moment, he thought that they might stop and pick him up, that she might tell her mother to stop the van and jump out of the car to run to him laughing and smiling; his heart started to flutter thinking that he may have a new child! But instead the girl looked like she was about to start crying and pulled her own bear up close to her chest. Then they were gone. The sorrow on her face had said it all. Nobody wanted him. Those that saw him just wished he didn’t exist, because he made them sad.
In the early afternoon the wind started to pick up and he let it carry him out into the street. When he saw a car that carried a child coming at a good speed he jumped in front of it. The roaring sounds of the other cars faded away into nothing, replaced by only the rumble bearing down on him. The singularity of the noise was simple, calming. Then, suddenly, the car struck him with such force that he exploded: his flesh tearing away and loosing a great big plume of white fluff, like a snowball struck by a baseball bat. As Mr. Snuggles’ severed head came to a rest, he watched the excited boy in the backseat of the car. The boy looked out onto the swirling mass of white snowstorm around him with wonder. Seeing this wonder, Mr. Snuggles smiled one last time and died.