She worried. Worried that she’d disappoint the burgundy door and sadden her lights.
|She blinked at the ceiling. Once. Twice. Nothing. Then the lines she stared at began moving, morphing in different directions.
Not tonight, they read.
She let out a deep sigh and reluctantly came around to the fact that tonight was just not a night for sleep. She glanced at the window. It was still dark. She hoped it would get brighter soon. Sometimes it would only stay dark for an hour or two and— while a pain on "sleeping nights"— were rather convenient on "no sleep nights". She sat up and slowly got out of bed, making her way over to the desk. It would’ve been nice to be able to make something. She loved writing and drawing but, looking over the pages on her desk, it was all done before her. All the pictures drawn, stories written… too late again it seemed. It was fine really. She wasn’t any good anyway.
Another glance at the window said it still wasn’t light out. Her job didn’t start until the bus passed by that didn’t start until birds cried and they didn’t cry until sunlight so there was nothing to do until then. She walked over to the kitchen to see if there was anything to eat. Her home creaked and groaned with each step but it wasn’t a sleeping night, so there was no need to sleep. It had no right to rest.
She checked the cupboard for food. Nothing except for exactly sixteen grains of rice and half a cracker. She scowled. No fair. She sulked to her kitchen table and plopped down onto its wooden chair. It didn’t even ask what was wrong. The lights, the kind things, did switch on a warm glow. She smiled and thanked them. Smiling might have been a needless act though; she suspected her light fixtures had poor sight. When it was dark they could not see and they had to give their light to others. So there wasn’t much of a chance to see.
A book appeared in the corner of her vision. Or at least she thought it did. Her little, leaning house did that from time to time but she also wasn’t the most observant. She went to grab for it and almost knocked down the glass of water that had appeared with it. She steadied the glass and brought both materials towards her. The book was good. Probably. She forgot it shortly after finishing it. By the end, however, it was getting light out.
She stood up and checked the cupboard again. There was a peice of toast this time. Unbuttered, but better than nothing. She took a bite and truged her way back to her room to get dressed. She really hated no sleep days. At least it wasn’t like that time back in her younger years— when she was still being taught and not untaught— and the "no sleep days" came in groups of threes or fours with less than a month in between. Sometimes not even a week. She got to sleep last time.
She dressed warmly, seeing as the window had a light wall of condensation (and the window always showed something nicer than the other side really was was). The morning bird began crying and she knew that was her cue to leave.
She left out her little red door and locked it. It almost immediately became more of a burgundy. She apologized and promised to return later. The shabby complex leaned a little less left after that. She walked down the steps and onto the sidewalk. It was snowing and the ground crunched beneath her feet. It was days like these she wished she could take the bus but there was no stop by the bakery she worked at. It only passed by.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. She huddled into herself and made her way to work. She didn’t want to be late. She could never quite remember what happened to her when she got there late but she was pretty sure that was part of the punishment. Even though she knew shouldn’t, she glanced over at the bench as she walked by it. There were two more people sitting there, making it five people seated.
The first of the newcomers was a woman in her mid-thirties with eye bags that told stories she didn’t want to read. That woman had on a brown dress much too thin to withstand the current weather. The second was a boy who was barely out of his teens. He wore a hoodie and jeans that didn’t look too old or worn, in contrast to the woman, but he had the same kind of eyes as her. As all of them. The next two sitting at the bench were lovers. The kind that the entire town scattered away from and averted their gaze in disgust. The last one was a teen girl in a black and white dress and shiny red shoes.
She used to envy the girl when she was too young to understand. Now she knew. Looking at them, the people there didn’t age. Similarly, they never seemed to look any less absent in their eyes. She never knew anyone to ever leave that bench. Most of them just dissolved into it. Maybe dissolved wasn’t the right word for it-- since she’d never actually seen it --but something told her it was accurate, more accurate than ‘disappeared’. Time moved differently there than everywhere else. Time moved differently everywhere but there, specifically there, it was Different.
She finally tore her gaze and quickly looked around to see if anyone caught her staring. No one had. Then she heard the clack of horse shoes along the pavement. Her eyes widened. It was earlier than usual. She tried to speed up but she wasn’t faster than a horse drawn carriage. It morphed into a buggy as it passed by her and that only slowed it a bit and— considering was machine not mortal— was overall a turn for the worse. Soon it would become the bus and she’d be late.
To make things worse The Lady with the Fur Scarf came towards her today, tugging on the front of her jacket.
Do you know where my daughter is? The Lady with the Fur Scarf asked She’s been gone for too long, too long.
She, like everyone else in town, never told The Lady with the Fur Scarf. If The Lady with the Fur Scarf didn’t understand by now— almost a decade now was it?— The Lady with the Fur Scarf never would.
And because of The Lady with the Fur Scarf, she was late.
She forgot what happened after that.
She eventually remembered what happened again. She sold the cookies and pastries to women, men, and children whose eyes were brighter than hers and words sometimes crueler too. The Lady with the Fur Scarf came in once to ask the customers. Even asked her again because The Lady with the Fur Scarf never could seem to remember anything (not that she was any better). The only reply The Lady with the Fur Scarf got was silence. The younger children would ask their parents what The Lady with the Fur Scarf was talking about and they would get shushed and coerced into buying a cookie or two. The day slowly drew to a close and the sky became dark. A starless and moonless night.
She trekked her way home thorugh the cold. It was so cold. Could she see? The street light came into view. Yes, yes she could. She came to work late, so she left late. It was so, so cold late. She passed by the bench and suddenly came to a halt.
The girl with the red shoes was gone.
Her heart got caught in her throat. She stared at the empy spot on the bench, trying to find the ghost of the girl. Little by little, she began to feel the girl’s hopeless presence in that spot on the bench. She knew that feeling too would fade.
She lifted her feet, feeling more like lead than ever, and dragged them into the direction of her left leaning house she promised to return to. At last, her near frozen hand reached her doorknob and key. The inside of the house was not much warmer than the outside but at least it tried to be. A fire started in her fireplace and she cracked a smile.
She opened the cupboard to find a few lentils. She didn’t feel upset this time. Just empty. She changed into pajamas and left her clothes to dry next to the fire. She picked up the book from the morning and began to read it again, hoping she’d remember it this time. She couldn’t even read it, though. Instead the words blurred and jumbled into incoherent phrases and pictures. She closed it and hesitated for only a moment when she threw it into the fire. It was good tinder.
She dozed off for a second before jolting herself awake. She didn’t know why, there was no sign or reason tonight, but she couldn’t sleep right then. She looked around and the window became the center of her vision. Out it, was the bench. Must closer than she’d ever seen it. She couldn’t even see it out her window usually. She looked around the house. The roof, which grew damp and leaked in some places. The lone chair and table. The sagging bed. Then she remembered the lights, the book, the red or burgundy door.
The Lady with the Fur Scarf.
She shivered and leaned a little closer to the fire. She didn’t want it to happen. She really didn’t. But she knew one day she wouldn’t be able to fufill the promise she always made to her little leaning house. One day she would not return home.
Out of the corner of her eye, where everything in the world seemed to happen, the bench got just a little closer.