This second message Brenda didn’t delete and actually did read. She pondered it for a while and considered what would happen next, if she answered. But the idea of responding, of engaging at all, petrified her and the trembling started up again. Brenda thought she could feel tears starting and forcing shut her eyes she realised that the tears were more than starting. They dribbled down her shaking cheeks and into her opening mouth as the howl began to erupt, loud long and forcing her to breathe in sudden gut-wrenching sobs. Her diaphragm and abdomen were heaving painfully, driving alien sounds out of her gaping mouth in an animal roar. The awful sound skated across the kitchen’s granite surfaces and the walls reverberated in a horrible near silent echo. Brenda half collapsed into a low crouch. Slowly, agonisingly and still howling she crept wretched on hands and knees to a refuge under the kitchen table. There she stayed in tight ball until the keening started to ease and the sobs were subsiding into a series of breathy wet intakes of air that threatened to choke her. Eventually Brenda still stuttering and weeping slow and sad and afraid went out into the garden and stared into the light surrounding her. She stood on the wet grass feeling her shoeless feet getting colder and damper, hearing vaguely distant traffic sounds, random music, birds. The sounds of some other life, the sounds of a stranger’s other world, a world where Brenda had no place.
She looked again at the phone and wanted to draft a reply, but her fingers were shaking too much to even keep any sort of a grip on the device. She wanted to do the expected thing, the normal thing, the thing that she needed more than anything to be true. She wanted to text that she was ok but not at home, she wanted to text that she was taking a break, that she’s not in the neighbourhood or even in the county. She wanted to text that she was with a friend, but this was also not true. She paused. Instead of tapping out the letters of something like what Brenda thought might be considered normal and sending the message, Brenda just stayed standing very still. Her heaving chest was settling into more and smaller breathy breaths. Her face was beginning to dry a little as the tears turned slowly into a thin tight layer on her reddened face. She could feel the salt start to itch slightly. She waited for her chest to rise more steadily, noting unexpectedly that the pain in her back and ribs was not as bad as it was. She admired the dedicated and efficient way some baby sparrows were working at their shredding. They were systematically picking leaves of one of Audrey’s bushes dropping selected slivers onto the ground in a random mess. Some leaves were shredded more than others and some were tested and then left in place on their branch. It all seemed so very important, so very present.
The midmorning sun was soon warm on Brenda’s head and the Merino cardigan across her shoulders somehow helped to calm her. Brenda tapped many times with many corrections eventually to send a message of reassurance and as her hands began once more to tremble, she quickly sent it. Brenda hurried back indoors to the safety of her special chair where she sat with her arms folded round her upraised knees until the shaking finally stopped. Slowly she focused on the kitchen and the silent air’s emptiness and started to breathe more carefully and more deeply. Occasional gulps and the remnants of chilling wetness clinging to her cheeks diminished as Brenda reached to the small table by her side and gathered up the pile of bills she had come across in Audrey’s desk.
Brenda intended to open the calculator on her phone, but instead she immediately pressed to switch it off as a new torrent of notifications started flooding onto the screen. Breathing deeply and stretching her legs out to place her wet feet slap on the floor Brenda kept still, banishing the quivers and shakes, breathing her own focus, staring at the cooker clock, waiting for it to click in silence to the next number. Then going slowly from bill to bill Brenda methodically added up the amounts, focussing on the numbers, the numbers, the numbers. Not trusting her memory or her arithmetical powers, Brenda went up to Audrey’s study in search of a calculator. Sitting at the desk she was aware that the room’s muffled calm enveloped her. She was surrounded by beautiful unthreatening things, and no hidden danger lurked. Some semblance of someone else’s serenity help her. It was beginning to ease the fear that cruised her consciousness looking for prey. With immense care and focus Brenda added it all up. When she saw the total she blushed a little, marginally affected that what she had had in her head matched what was on the calculator’s little screen. “Just luck,” she said quietly and then turned her attention to the heap of official looking but unopened letters accumulating on the desk. Their contents, Brenda was certain, told a story of their own but she didn’t yet dare to open them. Instead she ordered them according to the dates on their postmarks and their geographies: British and French and a couple from America.