Picking through the litter in the gutter, little Annie Fletcher is a shining pebble among a ton of coal; a pretty girl hidden beneath a pauper exterior. Oblivious to the depression riddled neighborhood that surrounds her, she joyously sings her favourite nursery rhyme; humming where she forgets the words.
“…there was an old woman who ate a spider…(hum, hum hum)…it tickled inside her…there was an old woman, da dum dee dum…”
With nothing of interest in this treasure cave, as she would often refer to it, she clambers out of the gutter and hops up and down the kerb as she makes her way along the street. She tries ever so eagerly to jump between the shadows.
“…(hum, hum, hum), she ate a fly…”
Something familiar takes her eye. She stops and gazes up at number six; an ominous old house in front of her. Tall weeds touch the bottom of the boarded up windows and no signs of life. With a highly active imagination Annie has often dreamt up possible scenarios as to who might live there; afraid to come out. As she admires the thick jungle of foliage that could swallow her up in one gulp, she’s distracted by the distant rant of boys approaching; a trio brat pack of bullies who take consistent pleasure in teasing Annie where possible.
Although she knew that she could easily stand up to them, if she wanted to, the consequences weren’t worth the bother, and her bruise hadn’t healed from the last encounter. So as their bicycles rattle closer, Annie scurries through the rusted gate of the shabby dwelling and hides among the weeds that tower nearby.
As she waits patiently for them to vanish, she often wished they would, she pauses in deadly fright. Her breath taken aback by the coiled up python that lay beside her; which although frightening, even Annie knows pythons rarely have sprinkler heads attached to their tails. Having never ventured this close before, and knowing even those bullies weren’t this brave, she feels the exhilarating temptation to peek through the window. She wades cautiously through the drying jungle, heading towards a tiny slit in the boards that cover the cracked window pane.
“Hello? Anyone home?” she timidly calls out but no response. From inside a pocket in her tattered dress she pulls out a pencil and a scrap piece of paper; compliments of the neighbourhood gutters. Annie always ensured she had a good supply of paper as it was a regular pleasure she gained from drawing little pictures and leaving them in neighbour’s letterboxes. Although it didn’t take much more than a nine year old to figure that whoever lived inside this house wouldn’t be checking their mail very often, if at all.
Annie was very good at drawing smiley faces with big gleaming teeth and wide eyes; the only thing she felt described her perfectly. Pleased with what she thought was her best one yet, she slid it under the front door and waited. Two minutes seemed like hours yet Annie persisted. She sat on the step of the front porch, gazing at the monstrous green python still coiled among the weeds; thinking she may have to capture it if she gets any more bored from waiting. Her safari moment was interrupted by the soft swish of something behind her. She spins around to see her smiley face had been pushed back under the door; returned to sender. Annie felt a surge of excitement that someone did live here, mixed with the rejection of her artistic flair, so with an adult like sigh she stomps towards plan B.
The rear of the yard is even more intriguing than the front. The windows again covered with indignant intention to keep the light out as Annie wanders around trying to look in, but despite her relentless optimism, she knows this will be a challenge.
“Hello?” she pauses to find a tone of authority. “Excuse me, I should like to have a word with you.” She knew this would be a stretch and without expecting a response she just sits on the back porch gazing into the African jungle before her; itching to see if any more poisonous green pythons were living out there. Moments later Annie writhes in pain amongst the weeds with an award winning performance.
“Help! I’m being eaten by a snake!” she cries out, adding extra choking sounds for good effect. The back door shows no more life than the front, so Annie decides to go for the jugular. She strides back to the porch, lies on the ground and begins act two.
“Oh no I’m having a heart attack…I’m…dying!!!” she wails and twitches. Shakespeare himself would be proud to have worked with her and if only she knew what an Oscar was. Annie lay there on the cold unforgiving concrete; perfectly motionless.
A tiny squeak from rusty hinges prompts Annie to open a single eye; squinting as best she can. An old wooden broom handle protrudes from the darkness and jabs her in the side. She struggles not to laugh.
“Hey! Not fair!” she gasps, cackling girlishly. She spins around to see the back door is slightly ajar. Her hopeful eyes wider than her drawing quickly sink as the door slams shut with the merciless sound of the lock, clicking in place. Annie’s spark has fizzled. Defeated, she slumps on the ground beside the door with her cheeks cupped sulkily in her hands.
“It’s okay. I know what it’s like.” She sighs. “We’re kind of the same really. We spend lots of time alone; no-one to talk to.” Annie starts doodling on the ground with her finger. The looming figure of an old man inside the house peeks from behind a curtain beside the door; watching her intently. Annie continues unaware.
“Mum and dad fight a lot.” She tells sadly. The old man continues to pay attention; noticing a purple bruise on the back of Annie’s neck. She quickly changes her mood.
“But it’s okay because I got this really cool hiding place under the stairs.” She puffs excitedly, “and the mousies there are sooo cute!” As she springs to her feet, the old man moves away from the curtain to remain unseen.
“I know!” she gasps, “If you don’t want to be friends with me, maybe you could make friends with some mice too! I’m sure you’ve got lots in…’ She stops at the sound of a gentle click, the door creaks open and hovers ajar. Annie smiles and without needing an invitation she creeps in.
The kitchen is completely devoid of heat; its cold, dimly lit appearance spotless and minimal. The archaic kettle begins to stir beside two cups on a tray. The old man moves with grace as he measures the sugar with meticulous precision. His tall, pale and sullen-faced exterior would rattle the boots of any neighborhood bully. The only one unaffected is the little girl closing the door behind her.
“Hi, I’m Annie!” She spouts as the old man pours the tea; no reply. Annie swings on her heels, uncertain what else to say, when she gawks at the unopened mail on the table; addressed to Reginald Baxter. She squints to read.
“Pleased to meet you Mister Baxter.” Reginald pauses, then continues with his task when Annie notices the tea pot.
“Ooh, I like tea. Can we have something to eat with it?”
Reginald turns slowly to face the beaming smile; reminiscent of a drawing he once saw. He gestures towards the fridge and she happily obliges.
“Mmm, let’s see, there’s…cake.” she quizzes as she scans the contents of the fridge which contain nothing but a plate of half eaten cake. “You don’t eat much do you?” She grabs the cake and closes the fridge door.
Sitting on an old chair inside the antique lounge room, Annie studies the weathered face across from her as he stirs milk in their tea; the day old cake withers on the small table between them.
“You know you could smile a bit more.” She states. He stares blankly at her; having no idea how to respond to such a foreign creature.
“Here, I’ll show you.” She says, beaming a big toothy smile. “See? Now your turn.”
Reginald, in a defeatist attempt to please the girl, smirks lamely across at her.
“That’s not a smile,” she protests, “it doesn’t count unless you show teeth.” She stretches her mouth into the widest smile possible as she tries to speak through gritted teeth. “See?”
Reginald tries again but only shows half his teeth.
“Better.” She demeans, “but we’re going to have to work on that.”
Reginald gladly remembers the cake needed cutting and passes her a cup of milky tea to keep her quiet. The crumbling cake that suffers under the stroke of his knife gives little regard for Reginald’s ability to cook, and Annie’s too busy delicately sipping her tea to care.
“You know, other kids think you’re a vampire.” She blurts out. Reginald’s knife suspended in momentary pause as a wave of regret in opening that back door washes over him. “But I know you just stay in here because you’re shy.”
Trying to ignore her, a task in itself, Reginald manages a half reasonable slice of cake on a small plate and passes it to her as she continues her frank observation.
“And you have no-one to talk to; except for maybe these ladies.” Annie gazes at the mantel piece beside them. A dozen photos of various women; all wearing dresses from distinctly different eras. The only common thread being the long forgotten happiness filling the vacancy in their eyes. Reginald is lost in a moment of reminiscence as he scans the collection with a hint of remorse.
“But you can talk to me if you like.” She interrupts his thoughts as he watches her eat cake; she’s ravenous. Reginald sips his tea silently as Annie’s cake barely touches the inside of her mouth before being swallowed.
“I sometimes talk to Mrs Edgley up the street; she’s really nice.” Annie reveals, then almost chokes on her last bit of cake as another idea springs upon her. “Maybe you could talk together! She’s lonely, and she’s old like you!”
Reginald can’t help but feel put in his place. Annie fumbles through her dress pocket, pulls out her pencil and another piece of scrap paper and scribbles on it.
“I think this is her number. It’s the big white house.” She places the paper on the table with number 17 scribbled on it. He stares at it cautiously in a mildly muddled state. Annie corrects her posture as she prepares for her next acting masterpiece.
“May I have some more cake please?” she asks in the poshest voice she can muster. Reginald notices the crumbs spread liberally across her face and unconsciously allows a hint of a smirk as he gestures for her to help herself. Annie proceeds to cut the cake; acting like a princess.
“You see, the maids don’t let me have cake very often,” she proclaims, ignoring the crumbling mess she’s making from the dry dessert, “and I see you’ve done such a lovely job Sir Reginald. The texture is marvelous…”
“Annie?!!!!” A furious male voice booms from a few doors down. Annie’s playfulness plunges into fear as she fumbles the knife and cuts her finger. Blood trickles freely and Reginald’s heart stops a beat. He quickly takes stock of his heightened breath but Annie is too busy fumbling through her pocket to notice.
“It’s okay, I always carry band-aids.” She reassures as she pulls out a band-aid and looks at her finger; then to her new friend across from her.
“Could you do it for me?” she asks sweetly. Reginald’s clearly conflicted as Annie hops off her chair and waddles on her knees toward him; her bloody finger leading the way. “You’ll have to clean it first; just use my dress; it already has stains on it.”
Annie grabs the corner of her dress to give to him as he reluctantly obliges. Despite a determined resistance, Reginald’s pulse quickens. He swallows discreetly, trying to maintain composure as he cleans the blood. He can smell the sweet rose fluid like a delicate flower that would never appear in his garden. He looks up to her and the silence between their eyes is relentless. Reginald neatly applies the band-aid and his pulse slowly returns to normal. Annie glows excitedly.
“See? That’s what friends do.” She declares proudly. “So we must be friends!”
Annie hugs his legs tightly which only heightens Reginald’s unease. “You’re the first friend I’ve had in years.”
Reginald awkwardly places his hand on her head in an attempt to be affectionate. She nestles in further when suddenly her eyes pop open to the repeated male voice bellowing at her from a distance.
“Annie!!! Get back here now!!!”
“I better go!” she blurts as she leaps up and runs back towards the kitchen. Reginald feels an unexpected hole expanding in the pit of his stomach. “Don’t worry, I’ll visit again.”
This gives the old man an odd sense of comfort he thought he’d never feel again.
“I have to; to help you with that smile.” She reminds him. Annie disappears down the hall, leaving Reginald motionless in thought when she suddenly scuttles back.
“Oh and if you want to visit Mrs Edgley, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone.” She whispers loudly. “She does look tasty.”
Reginald’s blank expression contrasts Annie’s trademark smile as she runs out. Her voice echoing down the hall. “See ya Reggie!”
Reginald looks at the tattered paper with the house number scribbled on it and smiles; this time his mouth opens wide enough to clearly show the distinct presence of a protruded bicuspid.
Inside Annie’s dilapidated dwelling, in a tiny room under the broken staircase, the muffled sound of arguing parents resonates unforgivingly through the house. A board is pulled away and the silhouette of Annie sneaks in; replacing the board and plunging her into darkness. She softly hums her nursery rhyme; striking a match to light a small, well used candle. In the feint orange glow a little mouse nibbles at some crumbs. Annie watches it and smiles sweetly; her face glowing with a fresh abrasion.
“Hello there. I haven’t seen you before.” She says as she moves the crumbs closer to accommodate. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.”
As the arguing intensifies, Annie looks to the loose board; the smashing of dishes makes her flinch.
“Looks like no-one’s cooking tonight.” She sighs as the mouse continues to enjoy the cosy setting. “Would you like to stay for dinner mousy?”
Annie glances slowly towards the mouse; her sparkling eyes roll dark and a pile of mouse carcasses tower beside her. She lunges toward the unsuspecting creature with brandished fangs.