It wasn’t that she was afraid, exactly. Donna was a thirty four year old woman with a german shepherd by her side and pepper spray wedged in a pocket. Her shoes were laced tight and the flashlight illuminated the path in front of her. It should have just been another Tuesday night walk before dinner. But it wasn’t.
It had started that morning when the sound of scratchy static crept into her dream, startling her enough to open her eyes and see the television on but the satellite off. The way her heart clenched in her chest bolted her upright, but after a thorough check of the house- walking on hopefully muted tip toes in blue fuzzy socks through every room knife first- she concluded the house was empty.
She’d eyed everyone on the subway on her way to work, trying to remember who were regulars and who weren’t. It seemed strange that she couldn’t readily pick them out, since their lives intersected at this same time every day. But that’s what happens when things are so regular- you forget to notice the details that weave themselves together to wrap you in your cocoon of normality.
Breathing a sigh of relief when she’d sat at her work desk that morning, the letter caught her eye. First off, hardly anything is hand addressed anymore, and the tilt of the letters indicated a southpaw. There was far too much money laid out in twenty-five cent stamps in the upper right corner, as if someone had found a stack of ancient stamps in a drawer and felt their OCD kick in to make the rows even. Holding the paper-sized envelop in her hand, she flipped it over to discover a wax seal, embossed with the letter K.
Knudsen’s, Keller’s, Kluskey’s, Kensington’s. Those were all the people in her life she could readily recall with a last of K. But none of the K last-namers were attached to any suspicious people. She squinted at the seal and slipped a shaking finger underneath, erupting the seal and tearing the paper. She shook it upside down as a single shoestring tumbled out. Squinting, she picked it up and inspect it with a puzzled expression. It looked like any average, white shoestring found in millions of sneakers.
She dropped it onto her desk, watching it sprawl out in a snake’s stretch. Who the hell would send her a shoestring? Was it some type of message? A threat?
Donna ran her finger along the plastic enclosed tip of the shoestring in her jacket pocket now as she continued her evening walk. Bentley had slept right through her check of the house and didn’t seem the least bit worried as he trotted down their street. She felt much better having him by her side. But if she was being honest, the unease still lurked beneath her dark hair, slender neck and beating heart.
A little free-association might do the trick. She was pretty sure that’s what her therapist would say if it were thursday instead of tuesday, when she had her weekly appointment. “Donna, tell me the first words that come to your mind when you think of the word, shoestring,” Dr. Lynn would say.
She shuddered, and put her hand to her neck. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe she should have mentioned it to someone? She wasn’t seeing anyone steadily and her best girlfriend happened to be away on a seven day cruise in the Mexican Riviera. She had thought of mentioning the letter to her boss- it had come to her place of employment after all, but had decided against it. No one wants to employ someone who received crazy, cryptic packages.
A sharp sting on her shoulder caused her to whirl around, fists flying up into what she hoped was a menacing defensive pose. The bushes to her right rustled as a few neighborhood kids dissolved into giggles and taunts as another piece of candy came flying towards her. In a rain of dum-dums, kit-kats, sour patch kids and almond joys, the kids fanned out, retreating behind the bushes into a back yard. “Cougar!” one of them yelled at her.
Eyes wide, she snatched up a handful of the candy and hurled it in their general direction. “You’d better run!” she called after them. The days just prior to, and right after Halloween always brought neighborhood pranks, as sugar-induced bravery led to smashed pumpkins and other trickery. She picked up the almond joy and peeled back the packaging, deciding to make the best of it. As she bit into the chocolate and let it perk up her tastebuds, she was more than a little relieved that it was just some punk kids. She smiled, thinking surely you had to be older than thirty four to qualify as a cougar. Her smiled faded as a a new figure stepped our from behind a fence.
“Oh,” she said, almost dropping the chocolate. “You startled me.”
The scare from the kids had a defense-dropping effect and she smiled politely at the man with the red baseball cap. It was too dark to see his face, or to notice anything more than his strong jawline bristling with a few day’s growth. “Nice night,” she said.
He nodded, his posture seeming to straighten, but kept his head tilted.
When he didn’t speak, her stomach tightened and a her mouth went dry. Something was wrong.
Glancing to the many houses lining the street, she stepped behind Bentley and reached into her pocket for the pepper spray. She tried to grip it tight but it slid around in her hand like a fat fish.
“Your dog’s eating something,” he said, his voice gritty and low, like he was recovering from a bad cold.
“What?” she said, taking another step back, retreating further.
He pointed. “Chocolate or something.” He coughed into his jacket.
She dropped down to get eye level with Bentley, who indeed had half a wrapper sticking out of his mouth. She grabbed it and pulled on Bentley’s leash, redirecting him onto the street and away from the man.
“Hey,” he called after her. “You know dogs can’t have chocolate, right?”
She looked back at him as she hurried away, not answering, and headed towards the part of the street bathed in a yellowy streetlamp’s hue. She couldn’t shake the unease crawling up her spine.
Her street was just around the corner and she couldn’t wait to deadbolt her door. She took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, calming manner. All she needed was a little perspective. The shoestring was probably just a halloween prank to see if it would get to her. Picking up her pace she threw a glance over her shoulder just to make sure the creepy red hat guy wasn’t following her. No one in sight.
She’d never been so relieved to see her front door as she raced up the stairs, keeping pace with Bentley. She slammed the door behind her, locked and twisted the deadbolt.
Letting out a sigh, she flipped on the lights and headed to the kitchen for a bottle of wine. She tossed her keys and pepper spray onto the table with a clatter, feeling excited to unwind. She opened a cupboard and scanned for a good bottle of red, almost feeling the hot tingle of its liquid on her throat, just as someone grabbed her from behind.
Donna’s eyes widened and she flailed backwards. A strong pair of arms encircled her neck and covered her mouth. She fought to scream, but her attacker muffled her attempts. Unable to turn around or get him to release his grip, Donna tired to kick backwards at him, throwing them both into the cabinets but the man didn’t relent. There was no way she could reach her keys or the pepper spray.
Her mind flashed to the shoestring- the warning- and she closed her eyes, knowing it would be his next move. This is how it would end, just like this. A suburban kitchen strangling of a single woman in her thirties, who hadn’t proved anything to anyone.
And just like that, she pictured the shoestring.
Not the one he was going to wrap around her neck. The one in her pocket.
It wasn’t a warning- it was a weapon. In one swift motion, she reached in her pocket and whipped it out, flinging it behind her around her attacker’s neck so it hung around him like a macabre necklace. She tried to criss cross her hands over her head to pull each end tight, to cinch up his noose, but her hands were so slick with sweat she couldn’t get the traction she needed. Squirming, she started seeing stars, her fingers tingling.
He was so strong. Too strong. This was it.
And then, in a flash of light, she woke up. She dissolved into a coughing fit, gulping air, as her hands caressing the soft, warm flesh of her neck. It was a dream. The sleep wouldn’t shake off of her. She stumbled out of bed and ran to the bathroom, needing to verify her physical existence. Sleepy eyes, tangled hair and flushed cheeks stared back at her.
She was fine.
So there hand’t been any letter. No mysterious insignia of the letter K. No shoestring. She couldn’t seem to slow her pulse, even after a cold shower. She couldn’t snap out of it. She dressed in a haze, mind rerunning the events of her dream in an eerie loop. Glancing around for her shoes, she decided she must have left them downstairs by the door when she’d come in.
She ran down the stairs, checking her phone for the time as she did. If she hurried, she would barely make the train that would get her to work on time. The carpet felt soft on her feet, which she only realized when her feet met the tile. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes.
There they were, right by the front door, as she’d suspected. She shoved her right foot into one as she simultaneously reached for the overturned left shoe.
Donna gasped as what she saw registered, and she dropped everything.
There, laced through her completely black shoe, was one perfectly white shoestring.