"Be wary of the woods my child, it's whispers will drive you mad." The wrinkled mouth crooned as she placed a shaking hand on my shoulder. I nodded and twisted the sponge until the remaining water spilled into the chipped bowl.
"All right Mrs. Stevens, can you raise your arm for me?" The tired woman shakily raised her hand until I was able to swab it down with the soft pores of the sponge. The fireplace cracked and hissed as I toweled off her right arm gently.
"Ok, all done. Now let's get you to bed." I said raising up off my knees and allowing the ancient woman to use my strength since her own was fleeting at best.
"You are such a good girl, Mary. Thank you for taking care of your old grandma." I smiled graciously and helped her to her lowered bed. It had been four months since I came to take care of Mrs. Stevens and in all that time, not oncehad Imanaged to get her to remember my name or the fact that her real granddaughter had died several years ago.
My name is Anna Rose Clayborn. I've lived on the Oregon coast my whole life and became a care taker to assist the people in my neighborhood. The woman I'm assigned to, I have known all twenty years of my life. Mrs. Stevens had been a school teacer long before I wasborn and a dearly beloved member of our community. I can remember so many nights spent at this house playing with her big dog and laughing with her actual granddaugther, Mary.
Once I had made sure the covers were secure and that she had swallowed her medication, I turned the lights down and patted Rufus, her shaggy golden retriever.
"Good night Mrs. Stevens. I'll see you tomorrow." As I turned to leave, I heard her scratchy voice whisper, "Mary, could you come here please? I have something to tell you." I had tried several times to remind her that I wasn't Mary. Her Mary died five years ago, but when the dimensia began to consume her mind, I found it a kindness to not frustrate her with her disappearing memory.
Positioning myself in the knitted chair beside her, I pulled the covers up closer to her frail chin as her dark eyes watched me carefully, "What do you want to tell me, Mrs. Stevens?"
She grasped my hand softly, "Please don't leave this house tonight. It isn't safe." I glanced around her room and back to her, "Why isn't it safe? Are you afraid someone will hurt you?" Shaking her head and squeezing my hand tighter she gasped, "No, Mary, something is going to harm you. If you leave this house, I'll never see you again."
I tried my best to soothe her by patting her brittle hand softly, "Don't worry about me, Mrs. Stevens. My car is outside and I'll be back to see you tomorrow morning. Just like I have everyday. And Chris is coming to watch over you tonight. He won't let anything happen."
Tears started to pool in her dead eyes as the effects of the sleeping pills began to take her body. I could tell how hard she was fighting against the numbing sensation as she shook my hand, "Please Mary! Don't go out! There will be other dances! You don't have to go to this one!"
Realization swept through me as I shushed her, "It's all right Mrs. Stevens. There is no dance tonight. I'll be fine. You don't have to worry about anything. Shhhh." Her tired eyes fought the slumber as she drifted off whispering, "Please don't go……..Mary…….my beautiful Mary……"
Once she had finally succumbed to sleep, I pried my hand from her's and crept out the door. By the time I had made it to the living room, my colleague, Chris, was coming through the front, "Hey Anna, how is she tonight?"
"Not good. I can't believe I forgot what night this is." I said looking down. Chris shrugged, "What is so special about tonight?" I sighed and reached for the picture still resting above the mantle of a smiling girl in a red hood, "It is October 12th, the night her granddaughter, Mary, died five years ago."
He took the picture from me and held it up, "Wow, you two look a lot alike. What's with the cape?" I smiled fondly and took the photo back, "There was a harvest dance. We both went to a private school that ran all year, so our breaks were different than other schools. We wouldn't have Halloween off, so our class threw a pre-Halloween party. Mary always went as Little Red Ridinghood."
"Always? Why the same costume every year?" Chris wondered as he set his jacket down on the deep blue sofa. I placed the photo back and sighed, "Because it was her favorite story. After school, Mary and I would come back here and listen to Mrs. Stevens tell old stories while we did our homework. Litte Red Ridinghood was Mary's favorite."
Chris stroked a hand through his goatee, "I knew her granddaughter died, but I never knew how or when. And I didn't know you two were such good friends." A familiar stab of grief went through me as I picked up my jacket and went for the door, "She wasn't just a friend, she was my best friend. More like a sister than anything else."
Chris took a step closer, "Hey, I didn't meant to stir up any bad memories. I'm sorry, ok?" I waved him off, "It's all right. No one found out what happened to her anyway. But I've got to go now. Make sure to give Rufus his worm medicine. Good night."
The wind was colder than I remembered as it twirled around me in a frozen embrace. Peeking out into the deeply shrouded forest, the childish part of me swore that the wind whispered my name. I shivered and reached around in my purse for my car keys. Thankful that my engine roared to life, I backed out of the driveway and down the road a bit before driving home.
On the way, I remembered Mary's bright face as she smiled, "It's going to be a party! Everyone will be there!" That was the last thing she ever said to me. I couldn't remember going to the dance, or if any boys asked me, but I remembered her smiling face. People said it was because of the shock from her disappearancethat I had blocked out that day, but I did remember herexcitment as she tied her red hood together.
The shortest way to the school from Mrs. Steven's house was through the path in the woods that her grandfather had carved out years ago. But that would only take fifteen minutes if Mary were taking her time. Once the police had begun searching for her, the final report declared that she had become lost in the dense forest and fell into the river. Her body was never found, only the red cape that washed up on theshore stained with the deep crimson of her blood.
I remembered walking those paths with Marysince we were six, there was no way she could have been lost. Of course I searched for her several times, but never found the slightest trace of my best friend. After a while, I began to believe what everyone else already knew, Mary was gone and nothing could be done to bring her back. I suppose in a way, that's why I started to take care of Mrs. Stevens. It's what Mary would have done.
The evening wind blew sticks and leaves across my windshield and the constant questions that had tormented me all these years pulsated through my mind once again. I never would be satisfied with the public's opinion, my best friend wouldn't have become lost like that. She wouldn't have abandoned me! As the pain ripped through me again, I sped up the green Honda and whipped around the corner only to then, far too late, notice the deer in front of me.
With a yelp, I tried to avoid the fear-struck animal only to drive straight into the shallow ditch. The crack of my skull as it collided with the steering wheel was drowned out by the deafening ringing in my ears as I tried to move out of the carriage of my demise. Groaning in overwhelming pain, my stiff neck craned up as my watery eyes focused on the figure in front of me.
It wasn't until the thick stream of blood trailed into my eyes that I realized my head was split or until the shooting pain splintered up my wrist to tell me it was sprained. And it wasn't until my tired eyes finally focused that I realized the figure before me was wearing a cape as red as blood on snow. I shook my head in disbelief as she stared me down before sprinting back into the forest.
"M....Mary!!!" I screamed prying myself from the car and hobbling after her. Ignoring how my wrist burned with every subtle movement, I tore through the brush, following the red cape that was getting further from my sight. Thick drops of crimson fell from the split in my face as my legs protested the action of trying to keep up with the fleeing girl. The ringing in my ears had disappeared only to be replaced by a voice I hadn't heard in five years, "Run and catch, run and catch, the lamb is caught in the blackberry patch."
"Mary! Mary wait! Please wait!!" I screamed after her as my foot tripped over an upraised root and sent me spiraling down the leaf-covered hill. When the world stopped spining, my body burned as if it had been stabbed all over. I panted heavily, tears pouring down my face as I begged my good arm to push off and continue to follow. It was then that the singing voicewhich had been drifting so far from me, suddenly cried out from no more than five feet away, "What big eyes you have."
I startled at the unsuspected voice and fought through the pain to glance around at the quickly darkening woods, "Mary?"
"What big ears you have."
The voice sounded further away as I raised up on my knees, clutching my injured arm to my chest, "Mary? Is that you?" I asked as suddenly the voice whispered from directly behind me, "What big teeth you have."
The chill of her voice made the small hairs on the back of my neck raise as I limped around to try and get a good look at her. Though her face was shadowed by the hood of the cape, I knew, beyond any doubt that the girl standing before me was Mary, my Mary. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I reached out my good hand, "Mary.....oh thank God! It's really you! Where have you been all this time? What happened to you?"
The covered head cocked to the side slightly as she mused quietly, "Where have I been? No where, I have been with you all along." I stared at her throughly confused as she began to walk away. When she had gone no more than five steps, I called out, "Mary! Please! You have to tell me what happened!" She stopped and turned slowly as her hands went to her chest and pressed lightly.
"What happened to me? You're saying you really don't know, Anna?" I'm not sure if it was the way she said my name or the fact the when she dropped her bloody hands so that her palms faced towards me was when the dam of memories inside my mind snapped as the image of the deep crimson that dripped down her hands matched her cloak and the red filling my eyes from my own blood.
"Mary! Slow down!" I yelled chasing her through the familiar woods. The encompassing branches embraced us as we moved down the cut out path, not really needing the flash light as the sun set behind the trees.
"Hurry up, slow poke! We are going to be late!" Mary's infectious smile spread to me as I tried my best to keep up with her. My heels dug into the carpet of twigs and leaves as I cursed myself for wearing them in the first place.The red from Mary's cape flittered in front of me as she giggled, "Come on! What? You can't race in those stupid things?" Rolling my eyes, I dipped down to remove the horrid shoes and sprinted off to catch her as she sang, "Run and catch, run and catch! The first one to the dance gets Marcus!"
Mary had always been faster than me, her body seemed to flow through the dark trees as if she were the wind itself. There would be no way I would catch her in time and the prospect of dancing with the same boy we both liked was too good to pass up. My hand reached out, it's painted black nails gripping for the favored cloak she wore so often and pulling it back to gain the advantage.
I'm not sure if it was the momentum of the chase, the adrenaline coursing through my veins or if it was Mary who lost her footing, but before I knew it the girl who was once just in my reach fell to the side and rolled down the treacherous hill to the rocks below. I fell to my knees and scanned the darkness for her, "Mary! Mary are you all right?!?" When there was no reply, I carefully slid down the steep slope, my dress catching on malicious twigs and branches as they cut through my skin.
"Mary, can you hear me?" I gasped as my fingers dipped into a pool of sticky liquid. Raising my hand to my face, my stomach heaved when the red dripped down my fingers and the dark stream led to the massacure of a body before me. The thing that had been Mary was twisted in ways no body should have experienced as the sharp rock face splintered her sternum open, exposing her still twitching organs.
It wasn't until my throat burned that I even realized I was screaming as I tried to back away from the gruesome sight before me. Mary, my Mary, was brutally murdered and even if it had been an accident, I was the one who did it. I killed her, oh heaven, I killed her! The thoughts pulsated through my head as I vomitted whatever was left in my stomach on the forest floor.
What could I do? What could I do now?! I cried into my arms until the cool sensation trickled by my legs. Opening one eye, I realized that we were by Shadow creek which led to the powerful river just down the way. As the plan crept into my mind, my body started to act on it's own accord. My hands reached for the broken body and retracted at how cold her skin was. No, not her, it, it's not Mary anymore!
I bit my lip and pushed the mangaled form into the swift moving creek, her blood gushing onto my hands as finally the current took her. I cried and wept and gulped at the pain flowing through me as I tried to find my way home. Back to warmth, back to where I was loved and this could all be a nightmare, back to.....
Suddenly everything came into focus again as I curled my knees to myself, "I did it..... I killed you........" The figure stepped closer, bleeding palms still dripping as she stood over me, "Oh, Mary, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry!" I noticed her feet, covered by black bootsin the darkness, her legs and torso hidden by herblack dressand most of all her face as she lifted back the concealing hood. My scream would never be heard in those woods as my eyes frozeon the deep pools of black that replaced where her blue eyes once shone.
"What big eyes you have....." I whispered as she bent down beside me, "The better to see your treachery with."
The smile on her face stretched to her ears as she spat out a trill of giggles. I felt my body becoming numb as I gasped, "What big teeth you have......"
"The better to devour your soul with."