(Dedicated to a dear friend who lost her only daughter)
Stealthily she crept down the staircase, remembering to skip tread thirteen, as it always let out a mighty groan if the slightest weight was put on it. At times she wondered whether an unsightly, evil troll had not taken up the empty space, called it home, and decorated it to his heart’s content. She imagined dark batwing curtains and furniture sculpted from the blackest stone. On the hearth, she imagined that he had placed a heart-shaped onyx which reflected the light and dust motes dwindling down to the earthen floor. The groaning was his way of making it known that to step, even ever so lightly; on his house was not something to be contemplated at all. Humans, even small child-like ones, should take note of the ominous warning; it was not to be sniffed at or trifled with. You never sneezed at trolls; they were a force of nature, everyone knew that.
Her mother said she suffered from an o-ver-ak-tif ima-gi-nay-shun, whatever that may be, she hoped that it wasn’t contagious or in the worst case scenario could kill her . The cat suddenly died from something called cat flu, but how could cats even get flu? She worried that this was in the same thread as having an o-ver-ak-tif ima-gi-nay-shun. Her eight year old mind boggled at the idea. She couldn’t quite figure out precisely what adults meant by the weird things they sometimes said. She believed her communication skills to be vastly superior as she always said exactly what she meant; there could never be any doubt at all. She was an open book.
On the last tread she stopped and listened intently for any noises in the house. She heard her parents whispering urgently in the kitchen; heard her mother crying softly. Her brow furrowed at the incomprehension of the sadness that wafted towards her. It smelt peculiarly of tangy lemons and dry desert sand. She shrugged her small shoulders, unloading the heavy emotion instantaneously as only the truly young can. She would just have to move more quietly if she did not want to alert them to her presence.
Ever since Sarah could remember there had been a moratorium on even glancing at the Christmas gifts nestling under the tree, let alone handling or ever so slightly shaking one as to guess at the content within. Yet, each year Sarah stole down the staircase when no-one was looking and shook the presents to her heart’s content. At times she even sniffed them, believing that this could pinpoint the exact location of the store at which the gift had been purchased. This year, being no different from the rest, set Sarah’s feet on the path to the living room.
The tree dazzled and winked at her; the crystal ornaments dripped languidly down each branch shimmering like cast off raindrops in the early morning light. Sarah stretched her hand out to gently touch the spinning fairy, smiled and looked down at the vast array of gifts scattered beneath the tree. She inhaled the sharp, clean smell of the pine needles and lavender furniture polish and sighed contentedly. The gift that caught her eye was wrapped in rose red, shiny foil with a huge emerald green, sparkly ribbon and she shivered for her name was placed in her mother’s neat handwriting upon the gift tag.
Sarah ever so gently shook the parcel, gingerly smelled the corners but couldn’t come up with an inkling of an image as to the content. Her train of thought was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a chair being hastily pushed backwards across the lime yellow linoleum in the kitchen. Sarah hurriedly returned the gift to the exact location in which she had found it and sprinted up the stairs to her bedroom to the accompaniment of her mother’s nearing footsteps.
“That was close, phew”, she whispered as she gently closed her bedroom door.
It became a daily ritual, yet each day Sarah struggled to swim against the current of despair and sadness that suddenly seemed to fill the home and lurked in each shadowy corner. Every day she heard her mother crying; even her father seemed to diminish in stature. The atmosphere became heavier and the air harder to breathe. Sarah felt as though she was being pushed under black, oily water in a deep tank and her feet never seemed to reach the bottom. The other marked difference was that Sarah’s gift, in contrast to the pervading, lemony loneliness, became brighter and gaudier as each day passed. She noticed that it throbbed eerily when she held it in her hands. The rose red paper changed into the color of the blood that ran down Sarah’s knee whenever she fell on the tarmac in the back yard. The glittery green ribbon seemed to be soaking up the blood red and was becoming a dark, dirty olive.
Sarah knew this was not her o-ver-ak-tif ima-gi-nay-shun playing tricks on her, something extremely odd was happening to her present. She was scared and really tried her best not to go down to the living room again. She tried to avoid it at all cost, yet still the barely audible thudding pulled her inexorably down the stairs until she stood with the throbbing monstrosity in her hands. She didn’t want it anymore and thought of throwing it in the huge stainless steel rubbish bin in the kitchen. She was sure that an awful fight would ensue, because deep down she knew it belonged to her and it would not let go.
This morning as she crept unwillingly down, the thudding was so loud that she was certain her parents would come running in. Only Sarah could hear its insistent voice, though. She clapped her hands over her ears trying to block out the sound to no avail. The only option seemed to open the gift and bear the consequences. Resolutely Sarah walked over to the unappealing gift and picked it up gingerly. It was warm to the touch and moved sickeningly in her hands. It smelled of decay and moldy leaves. She had to resist the impulse to throw the gift hard against the opposite wall and swallowed repeatedly to get the bitter, rotten taste out of her mouth.
Sarah summoned all the courage her eight year old body could hold and lifted trembling fingers to the dirty, olive green ribbon. Gently she pulled the loops loose and threw the offending thing to the floor. She wiped her hands on her nightgown and saw that sticky, muddy streaks marred the soft pink material. A shudder ran through her and fear crept into her heart. She quickly ripped the blood encrusted paper off the gift, whimpering softly and throwing it as far away from her as she could manage. Her hands shook as she tried to tear the soaked lid off the cardboard box underneath. Inside, hiding in clammy tissue paper a tiny, throbbing heart could be seen.
Gagging, Sarah reached in and held the throbbing thing in her right hand. The box followed the ribbon and the paper to the corner of the room. She enfolded both hands around the heart which abruptly stopped. Dumbstruck Sarah watched the heart turn from a lively pinkish red to maroon and slowly to grey. It became feather light and brittle. Chunks started breaking off due to the slight pressure of Sarah’s hands. Within a few seconds it turned to a fine dust and trickled through her open fingers to the floor. An ashy smell invaded the room and Sarah sneezed. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand, noticing that her fingertips were turning grey. Horrified she watched as her arms and legs were engulfed by the eerily creeping color. As it reached her shoulders, her fingertips turned to ash and whispered down to join the powdery heart. Sarah screamed uncontrollably as she watched her body dissolve. Nobody heard her screaming, nobody came to help, nobody noticed as the body that was once Sarah became nothing but a pile of grayish white ash. A breeze fluttered through the open window and blew the tiny pile away and into the soaring blue sky.
The Daily News. 12 June 1989
Sandton, South Africa.
Sarah Huntington was killed by a drunk
driver late yesterday afternoon while
walking home from school. According
to eye witnesses she was crossing the
street at a traffic light when the driver of
a maroon Ford Fiesta skipped the red
light and ran over her. Paramedics reported
her dead at the scene. She leaves behind
her grieving parents Julia and Tom Huntington.
The memorial service will take place on
Wednesday 14 June at St. Matthews
Presbyterian Church in Sandton.