Second Chance part 1

August 4, 2010
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“For heaven’s sake, Jane! Call an ambulance! Come on, don’t just stand there! Hurry!”


It had happened thirty-five years ago. Thirty-five years, four months and ten days ago to be precise. Although, to her, it seemed much, much longer. Never once, though, had she forgotten the horror in his eyes, the sound of his voice, hoarse, strained with anger, or the way he had cradled her in his arms, her body limp, lifeless. Now, isolated from the rest of the world, it was her burden alone to bear the guilt—her life sentence—which painstakingly stretched each minute, each hour, each day into an eternal torrent of misery . . . a living hell.

The rocking chair creaked as the woman stirred. A ray of sunshine spilled through a gap in the musty, grey curtains, highlighting ghostly pale hands, lined with age, resting in the lap of the old woman, solemn, even in her state of sleep. “Come on, don’t just stand there!”

Eyes sprang open. Blood rushed to her ears. Her weathered hand grasped the arm of the rocking chair that was now tilting forward precariously. The sound of choking, her gasping for air reverberated off the walls and around the sparse room. She would soon meet her demise, receive her irony-tinged punishment: they would find her oxygen starved body, just as she had found hers. Air that surrounded her mocked her, eluding her and ignoring her lung’s ever growing plea to live.
Where was it? Eyes wide, mouth agape, she placed her hand on the small end table next to her, panic rising in her chest when realisation sank in. It wasn’t there—had she lost it again? Or had she? Falling to the floor, dust rising slowly from the austere wood upon impact, she let out a gasp, and with it, one final word that rolled off her dry tongue with excruciating pain.

“Sarah . . .”

She was ready to end it, to have her final glimpse of the small cottage she was now in, when she saw her. The baby sat next to the old woman, the cold, distant stare, as though she were a million miles away, evident in her eyes as it always was. In her outstretched hand, the inhaler.

A snatch and a deep inhale later, the woman lay on the old floorboards, blood cold, hair wild from her brush with death. The minutes melted away slowly, and soon she had regained her composure, or what little was left of it these days. She should probably do her post-attack breathing exercises. No. She was in safe hands. Turning to her right, she smiled at her tiny saviour, and her large violet eyes that continued their icy, soul piercing, stare into the old woman.

“You saved my life.” The woman averted her gaze. “If only I had done same for you, my darling.” She paused. “Oh. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Why didn’t I just leave the old girl, give her what she deserves . . . ?’ No, you”—she turned to the baby, her face still blank, the eyes empty—“you could never do such a thing, never, never. I’m sorry, so, so sorry.” Tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks, and she touched the mass of golden curls that framed two rosy apples, two rosebud lips.
“You’re my angel, Sarah, do you know that? You were sent for me. For my redemption.”

She rose dubiously from the floor, cautious of breaking another bone. Spending two days stuck behind the sofa had been a nightmare, especially when in agony from a broken hip, and a toilet that might as well have been on another planet. Sarah had saved her from her awful predicament that time also. Like she always did. Like she continues to do.

The old woman shuffled over to the baby and lifted her high into the air. Dangling her high above two heavily-lidded eyes, the woman stared hard at the baby, drinking every last precious detail of her, from the pink cotton sundress she was clothed in, to the matching silk booties.
“What was that?” She lowered Sarah to her attentive ear. “Don’t call me that! You know how I hate that name!” She shook her, seeking a response, a sign of life, even. “Jane! Jane! Jane! I hate that name! I hate it, hate it, hate it!” She threw Sarah roughly into the only armchair in the room. Silence. Not a scream. Not a wail. The small living room was shrouded with an almost impenetrable, soundproof bubble. It unnerved Jane. Grey, matted hair twisted nervously, expectantly around the long, gnarled finger, the paper thin skin turning red as the hair wound tighter. “Sarah?”

The eyes of the baby had shut as soon as contact had been made with the moss green leather.

Doll-like in their movement: two eyelids sliding over two perfect, violet . . . glass eyes.

Jane had received the doll two years earlier. She remembered the slow, distinctive rapping at the door, how suddenly the atmosphere had changed, and how the baby girl had looked sitting on the rain-spattered doorstep, a brown paper tag around her neck, handwritten in that slanting hand: Your second chance. Take it. Sarah was a gift from God, Jane told herself. An angel sent to protect her. An angel she had lost thirty-five years ago, due to her immense selfishness—her unforgivable carelessness.

But, Jane had been forgiven. By God; by her daughter. Her prayers as to why remained unanswered, however, and after a while, she became resigned to the fact she would never know, wasn’t meant to know, and graciously accepted God’s great generosity without asking further questions. Sometimes though, a thought occurred to her. It shook her. Then the thought would sail away as quickly as it had anchored in the turbulent, stormy sea that was her mind, and not return for days. Other times—rare as they were—it lingered, burrowing so deep inside her as if almost reaching her very soul. Even those times, those rare, inexplicable times when the gift turned sour, she would soon revert to her usual self; whether that was upbeat or melancholy didn’t matter. All that mattered was Sarah. Her second chance.

Emerald green eyes, still as clear and striking as they had been in her youth, darted across the room to the rocking chair, seeking the item she now sought. Sure enough, there it was. Sprawled on the chair was the shawl, tattered and old, nearly as much of an antique as herself, but nonetheless warm, practical. Frail hands shook as the shawl was scooped up into matchstick arms, the burnt amber wool vivid against salt and pepper hair that now brushed softly against it. Hunched now, her spine deteriorating, the result of osteoporosis, she walked steadily across the room to the large armchair, and the small doll that lay motionless in it. Jane, her hand now gentle, remorseful, plucked the sleeping babe from the confines of the deep, green leather, and wrapped her tenderly with the shawl, sweeping away a golden ringlet that fell across the small, thoughtful face.
“There,” a smile crept across thin, cracked lips. “All better now, sweetheart. Mummy’s sorry for losing her temper.” She lifted Sarah to her face, and violet eyes were once again open, their stare far older than the small face they were set it. “So truly sorry . . . forgive me?”
Violet eyes remained hard, rosebud lips, pursed. Green eyes welled up with tears, tears that had been locked away, suppressed from the world, from her, for so long; and now, as they spilled freely down aged cheeks, they brought with them the heartache long ago buried, the forgotten memories.
“Thank you, oh, thank you.” She shook, choked as she searched for the words. “I . . . don’t deserve . . . don’t deserve you.” She held the rigid girl tightly to her chest, rocking her gently, unwilling to ever let her go. Jane knew she must.
She lowered Sarah back into the armchair, tucking burnt amber more snugly around peaches and cream plastic, reluctant to leave her.
“Sarah.” She sat on the long, torn, arm of the chair. “It won’t be for much longer, I promise. We’ll be happy again soon. Really happy.” She glanced towards the window. The golden, ethereal light remained ever flowing into the room from the small slit in the moth-eaten curtains, emphasizing tiny particles of dust dancing slowly in the stillness of the atmosphere. Their dance was a sad one, empty, like herself, but knowing, aware of the secrets that lay hidden in the groaning walls of the old cottage, aware of the strange, disturbed thoughts that would not depart her.
Hands pressed firmly against her stained flannel skirt, she let out a deep, chesty sigh as she rose to her feet. One last look: she turned to Sarah—she was fine, sleeping, her violet eyes hidden behind two plastic screens. I’ll have time to cook dinner, then. Good.
The soft murmur of slippers shuffling against wood left the living room and became audible in the compact, but functional kitchen. The small, haggard frame came to a halt in the doorway and observed the tiny space around her. The air seemed musty in this room especially, not helped, she supposed, by the damp that crept along the chipped ceiling.
Jane rummaged in the cupboards, humming a strange little tune, soup being the prize in this game of hide and seek. There, perched on the topmost shelf of the cupboard, was the soup, its hiding place no longer a mystery. Arm outstretched above her, her grimace an indication of the strain, she reached out her hand and felt around in the dark, the soup still eluding her grasp, beginning to irritate her. She touched something soft, flat, instead. Paper? Her hand carefully slid the object to the edge of the shelf, and slowly, almost in slow motion, it fell serenely, just inches from her nose, landing softly on the stone tiles. She’d recognise the smooth, brown paper anywhere. Recognise the writing. The slanting hand: Our second chance. Take it.
No. She was seeing things. This was the fabrication of a narcotic, a person disturbed by her own self loathing, her fear. Jane brushed the paper suspiciously with her foot, producing a scratching sound as the paper grated against the rough stone. It seemed real. Each word, letter, circled her confused mind, spinning, trying to provoke a reaction—a memory.
She hurtled towards the kitchen draw, her hand now resting on the icy, brass knob, unable to fathom if this was the right thing to do, or if she was, indeed, insane. The skeletal hand jerked the draw open. Green eyes flickered, the cloud of uncertainty masking them morphing into complete and utter horror, the expression she wore to nausea. The tag. Sarah’s tag. It was gone.
Slowly, her gaze returned to the newly discovered tag, its words still mesmerising her. With some effort, her shoulders hunched and holding her frail back for support, she swiped the paper from the floor in one swift movement. Her eyes narrow, cutting an even deeper line in already prominent crows-feet, she examined the jet black ink, the silky paper and the frayed string that was looped through it. It was brought to her attention just how similar this tag was to the previous one, the writing almost being an exact replica of the former. Almost like a photocopy, if not for the missing ‘Y’ at the start of the message. Strange how one letter absent can make so much of a difference to the meaning.
The deeply lined hand dropped to her side, releasing its grip on that otherworldly paper. That sound. It was the sound of running water, growing louder, now, by the second. Where was it coming from? She attempted a jog to the door, and then, realising she was not up to it, decided against it, instead walking with as much vigour as her body would permit to where the gushing was emitting. Hurrying across the living room, her pulse quick, her breathing erratic, she was conscious of the chance of bringing on another asthma attack.
Jane came to a halt outside the bathroom, surprise etched on her face when she saw the door closed, not how she had left it. Her mouth opened with a grimace as the sensation of warm water could be felt seeping through her slippers. Water, she could see, was soaking into the carpet, spilling from under the bathroom door. Frantically, she shook the handle. It was locked. Thinking about it, in her rush across the living room just moments earlier, Jane hadn’t seen the baby, asleep in that green armchair, at all.
“Sarah! Sarah, open this door.” Jane’s tiny fist rapped on the old oak. “I’m not kidding, Sarah, you better get out here now! Five—four—three . . . .” She aborted her countdown. The sound of tumblers unlocking confirmed she could enter. The old woman hesitated. All was eerily quiet now, the sound of gushing water ceasing to be. Her hand shook as she pressed down on the handle. With an arm abundant in goose bumps, she pushed the door open, the creaking playing a chilling tune on her nerves. Uncertain of what visions of horror the scene before her would hold, she covered two teary eyes with a hand. The silence lingered. Her face turned away, not wanting to see her, she lowered the shaking hand. She knew she must look. I must.
The scene before her was exactly as she had imagined it. Everything was drenched, the air damp and heady with that instantly recognisable, musty odour. Looking down, she met the gaze of a haggard face reflected in the grey water below her, the emerald green eyes rippling in their accusing stare, the glint in them dead, knowing. Did she really look like that? No wonder others would avoid her like the plague during her rare ventures to the outside world. She sniffed, and a tear disappeared into that of the woman’s below her.
Brought back to reality by the sound of dripping, she looked up. The bath. Oh, God, please no, anything but that. Jane could feel her slippers becoming increasingly saturated as she drew ever closer to the claw-foot tub—the cause of this mess. I don’t want to look, don’t make me look . . . .
She stopped, fear restricting her from getting any closer. Jane could almost see to the bottom of the bath now. That scared her. Anticipation pulsing through her, she raised a foot, determined to face the music. More determined than she realised.
She was flying now. Hair flailing wildly, everywhere, her foot bare, the slipper still snagged on the broken tile. The eyes snapped shut before impact. She was braced for the pain. Water crashed against walls and onto the floor, the roar of it frightening. Jane held her ears. It would soon be over. It was.
Eyes in the distorted face opened, and hands digging into the grey mop of hair lowered. She lay in the empty bath, quite still after her incident of terror. Her breathing still quick, the panic in her still apparent, she focused all her strength on calming herself. She had been lucky. It was a miracle she hadn’t broken anything. Placing wet hands beneath her chest, she pushed herself onto her knees, ready now to climb out of the tub.
The relief was short lived. Her fingers felt something hard, round. Jane lowered her head, drops of water dripping from grey, matted hair, splashing hypnotically onto the smooth white surface of the bath.
“No! No! Get away from me!” She kicked out, convulsed with fear, falling backwards from the shock of it, the blow to her head the result of it. The blood curdling scream ended abruptly. A hand flopped over the side of the tub. Blood trickled down grey skin. Unconscious, not yet gone from this world entirely, Jane’s mind churned, bubbling in the cauldron of misery the ingredients to how it all started. She had never really forgotten.

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