When we had received the invitation, I knew that something suspicious was afoot.
It had been a normal day, but that dark red enveloppe sticking out of our old rusting mailbox ruined all hope for further peace of mind.
This realization had struck me after having read the sender’s name and address. I was hit with a sudden sense of fear and terror, attempting to destroy the envelope before my wife could catch sight of it. To my dismay, she had seized the paper from my hand before giving me a chance to think and read through it, expressing a great sense of joy as she went along. Apparently, we were being invited to a cookie exchange this upcoming Saturday. The event would be hosted by the Webbers.
I pleaded and begged, like a young and stubborn child, to not attend the gathering. Maria knew the reasons for my distress, of course, but declared it would be impolite to ignore the invitation. Plus, she had always been very closely acquainted with Mrs. Webber and was looking forward to the visit. Of course, at one point in time, Mr. Webber and I had also been quite close. However, that one terrible night had changed everything and we hadn’t seen each other since.
I argued that my presence would not be necessary at the gathering and that she could attend alone, but she would hear nothing more of it and I was therefore forced to comply.
All week, I felt restless and tense, thus disturbing my daily routine and sleep schedule. I felt miserable and awaited the weekend with great unease. My wife could sense my obvious discomfort in the approaching days, but made no remarks. She knew about what had happened between James and I, but thought it ridiculous that I had not let go of the past. If only she could understand the true terror I faced.
I read over the invitation time and time again, trying to uncover some deeper meaning.
‘Dear Dean and Maria Johnson,
We will be hosting a cookie exchange this upcoming Saturday, the 18th of December, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Please bring a dozen cookies for the main event and dress in festive wear!
Looking forwards to your visit,
-James and Sasha Webber’
So far, it seemed to be nothing more than a simple invitation. It still, however, left me feeling uneasy and anxious after every read-through. I could not imagine how Mrs. Webber had managed to convince James to let me into their home, but I could sense that nothing good could come out of it.
When Saturday came around, we drove to the event in an uneasy silence and when we arrived in front of the cozy looking house, I almost begged Maria to let me stay in the car, but thought it improper and was certain that my wife would not approve of it.
As we walked to the door, I could feel myself start to tremble, unwanted memories flooding back.
“I’m going to kill you Johnson! Mark my words, you’re done for!”
At the time, he had looked like a wild animal, face red with rage and eyes blazing with hatred. I felt at that moment that he could have torn me to shreds if it had not been for the two police officers struggling to restrain him.
I sensed Maria take ahold of my clammy hand, giving me a sympathetic smile.
“Dean, it’ll be fine,” she assured “it’s been three years.”
I nodded in agreement though my mind was still racing furiously as I placed a delicate kiss on her forehead.
She then turned back to the door, a light blush settling on her cheeks, and rang the bell. The few seconds before the door swung open felt like an excruciating eternity of torment, anxiously wondering whether he would be the one to answer or not.
Luckily, the small figure of Mrs. Webber emerged from the house, wrapping my wife in a tight hug after having let out a squeal of delight.
“I’m so glad you could both make it!” She exclaimed joyfully, stepping back to let us in.
The house was already quite full, and joyful chatter filled the room as jolly Christmas music played in the background.
I scanned the crowd quickly, but there was no sign of him.
“How’s James?” I heard my wife ask, her expression turning rather pitiful.
The name caught my full attention as I listened anxiously for Sasha’s response, praying that it might somehow put my mind at ease.
“He’s fine--just staying upstairs for now.” She replied with a smile “You know how he feels around crowds.” She trailed off with a sigh.
Maria nodded, understanding.
I groaned, now having been made aware that him and I were both currently under the same roof. However, I decided that if he stayed upstairs (which he most likely would), everything would be fine. Plus, the house was full of people. Surely he wouldn’t try anything. Surely he wouldn’t...
“Oh, you brought cookies!” Exclaimed Sasha joyfully, changing the subject after having spotted the tin container in Maria’s hands.
“This is a cookie exchange, isn't it?” Laughed my wife, returning the smile.
“Yes, yes, although many people seemed to forget.” She trailed off with a small frown, glancing around “Oh well, at least we can all get together.” She added happily.
Maria nodded in agreement. “Thank you for having invited us.”
“Oh don’t mention it, of course I’d invite you!” Giggled Sasha in response “Plus, James insisted you both come...” She rambled on joyfully.
I suddenly froze. “James insisted you both come…” Why had James insisted? Why had he wanted us to both come? He wasn’t even on the main floor. Or was he? I turned rapidly to the stairs in a moment of panic, but saw they were vacant. Good. Did he have something planned? Those haunting words rattled around in my head. I’m going to kill you Johnson! I’m going to kill you Johnson! But why? That was a stupid question--I knew exactly why. I’m going to kill you Johnson! But how? Maybe he would wait until everybody had gone home and then...
“Dean!” I heard my name being called and was pulled back into reality. “How are you?” Asked the voice as I felt myself being wrapped in a tight hug.
“Marcy!” I smiled, feeling slightly at ease for the first time that day “It’s been so long.” I added, straightening my back after having been released.
“I know,” smiled the brunette, “how have you been?”
“I’m doing okay, I guess.” I replied with a shrug “ Well, as good as I can hope to be in a situation such as this.” I added nervously, suddenly wondering where Maria had gone off to. Probably somewhere with Sasha.
Marcy nodded in understanding, knowing everything that had happened between him and I. We had been very close at the time of the incident.
“Don’t worry, Dean,” she smiled reassuringly “everything will be fine.”
I nodded in false-agreement for the second time that day, putting on a forced smile. “What about you? How have you been?” I asked, deciding to change the subject.
Marcy immediately began to ramble on about her exciting new job as a primary school teacher without even stopping to take a breath.
I would have liked to listen, but my mind was either going numb because of all the information or rather going insane with my fears and doubts. Every time I heard the slightest of sounds coming from the direction of the stairs, I would snap my head around and stare until I was sure it wasn't him. I knew that I was being paranoid, but I couldn’t stop myself. I knew what he was capable of. I knew what he could do.
Marcy seemed oblivious to my inattention, too indulge in her own stories to pay much attention to my demeanour.
“The cookie exchange is now taking place!” Exclaimed a loud and cheerful voice which I recognized instantly as Sasha’s.
Guests from all corners of the house then began to make their way towards the dinning room where the event would unfold.
Sasha began by giving a brief speech in regards to Christmas before explaining the simple rules of the exchange. Guests then began to swap treats, complimenting and conversing with others as the room was once more filled with a joyful chatter.
I watched happily as an older woman went on about how delightful Maria’s baking had been, making my wife blush and smile timidly.
“Dean, this one’s for you!” Smiled Sasha enthusiastically, standing in front of me.
I looked down to her hand that was holding out a fresh-looking gingerbread man. It was beautifully decorated with white icing and colourful candies.
“Thank you,” I smiled, taking the cookie out of her hand “It's very pretty.” I then complimented, taking a small bite.
“I’m so glad you like it.” Responded Sasha happily “James made it just for you!”
I froze at the mention of the dreaded name. James made it? Just for me? Then, everything seemed to click into place. Poison! He was trying to poison me! Of course, it all made sense now! It was not an obvious method--simple yet effective. He was a clever man, but I had luckily worked out his wicked scheme in the nick of time.
I hurriedly spit the piece of cookie from my mouth onto the floor and dropped the entire gingerbread man, watching as it burst into pieces on the ground like a shattering glass.
“Poison! Poison!” I began to yell “I’m being poisoned!”
Confused and concerned faces began to turn in my direction, listening to my insane claims.
I continued to shout the words over and over again, my arms moving frantically in the air. “I’m being poisoned!” My head was dizzy. My heart was pounding. My vision was blurring. I began to sway back and forth, my words fading into oblivion.
The last thing I saw was him, standing in the far corner of the room. Watching. “I’m going to kill you Johnson” resonated distantly in my head before everything went dark and silent.
When I opened my eyes, a bright light flooded my vision. Was I in heaven? No, Maria was sitting beside me on the large bed. Bed? How had I gotten here?
I mumbled something incoherent as I tried to sit up, but to no avail.
“Are you okay?” Was Maria’s first question.
“Where are we?” I asked in response.
“Upstairs. In Sasha and James’ house.” She replied calmly.
Upon hearing the fearful name, I shot up painfully.
“He’s trying to poison me! I’m going to die! He’s going to kill me!” I yelled in another frantic outburst, everything flooding back.
“Dean, calm down.” Ordered Maria firmly. She did not look happy. I didn’t blame her--certainly not after the big scene I had no doubt caused downstairs.
I lay back down with a sigh. “What happened?”
Maria shook her head with visible annoyance, standing up. Just then, I noticed the large figure positioned in the doorway. I froze.
“James wants to talk to you.” She explained, motioning for the man to come in as she made her own way towards the door.
I tried to call out to her. Help! Stop! Come back! But nothing came out of my mouth--not a single sound.
As James walked towards me, my body began to tremble violently. “This is it.” I thought grimly.
To my surprise, James made no effort to attack me--yet that is. He simply pulled out a chair and set it down beside the bed, taking a seat.
“Dean-” He began in his low and gravelly voice--the voice that had whispered those many threats in my ear and kept me from sleep so many nights.
“Get it over with.” I mumbled. I could not bear to wait any longer for the inevitable.
James’ expression was slightly confused as he looked down at his hands that were clasped together on his lap.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I urged impatiently.
James slowly shook his head, the saddened look on his features remaining present.
We sat in silence. He only stared and I sat still, waiting.
“I insisted you come tonight,” he began, taking me by surprise “because I wanted to...apologize.”
I was shocked, unsure about what to do or say. I had most definitely not been expecting such a confession.
“What for?” I managed to whisper.
“For blaming you.” He replied simply.
“For blaming me?” I repeated, uncertain.
James nodded solemnly. “For Mason’s death.”
At the mention of that name, I sensed a pang in my chest and I could tell that James felt the same way.
I didn’t know how to proceed.
“I’ve been thinking a lot,” he confessed, “for the past three years, in fact.” He laughed dryly.
He then took a deep breath. “I can’t go on, holding this grudge--blaming you for the incident.”
“I was driving…” I whispered.
“You lost control.” He continued, a tear rolling down his firm cheek “It was an accident.”
“Your brother, he-he’s”
“He’s gone.” Finished James.
“I was driving.” I breathed out.
There was another long silence.
“I insisted you come tonight because I wanted to apologize.” Repeated James.
As we sat in another comfortable silence, we could both feel a burdening weight finally be lifted from our shoulders as an unfamiliar peace of mind took hold.