Word Count: 1402
“Did you call the sitter?” She was dashing from the bed to grab her shawl, to the mirror to pick up her earrings. Her heels clacked rapidly across the hardwood floors.
A smile crossed his face. “Of course I called the sitter. You know I did.”
“No, I mean, what time are they gonna be here?”
He watched his wife putting an earring in, dropping it, then putting it in again and sliding the clasp onto the back. She took a look in the mirror, pursed her lips and then said, “We’re going to be late.”
“We have plenty of time. Besides Will and Bennie don’t expect us there til later.” He stepped up to her and rubbed her shoulders. “Relax. It’s going to be fine.”
She was worried about the award. He could see it all over her face. It wasn’t even her award–it was Bennie’s but there was no telling her that so he just smiled at her reflection in the mirror, and stepped away.
“I’ll go check the kids,” he said.
Standing at the doorway to their room he found them playing quietly.
Sue looked up at him. “Dad?”
“Mom and I are leaving soon, okay?” She barely nodded returning instead to her game. He wandered back out into the hall and heard the doorbell ring.
“Get it?” His wife called to him.
“On my way–”
A small wrinkled old woman stood at the door. She wore a gray flowered dress and a bland expression.
“Are you the sitter? Mrs. Crandall?”
She nodded slowly.
“Come in please. I’ll introduce you to the kids.” He moved to the bottom of the stairs. “Kids! Come meet Mrs. Crandall.”
Turning away from the children thundering down the stairs he was surprised to see that the woman’s face was staring straight ahead almost as if someone had hit the pause button on her features. She didn’t turn her head until the children were right in front of her and even then her expression remained the same. Only her chin moved–up. She was shorter than his ten year old daughter.
He began to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Sue and Marty, this is Mrs. Crandall.”
Instead of responding, the little girl wrinkled up her nose and that’s when Martin smelled it as well– a fetid smell like an old basement. He gave a warning look to Sue then turned back to the old woman.
“Say hello, children.” He prompted them.
“Hello.” They averted their eyes. Martin made a quick decision to ignore it, given the unusual circumstances. He dismissed the children with a wave of one hand, and they bounded back up the stairs. Martin turned back to the old woman.
“I would like the children in bed by 9pm. They can tend to their own bedtime routine. We’ll return sometime around 1am. Please feel free to eat whatever you find in the fridge. The children have eaten already. They may ask for a snack but I’ve already told them no for the evening.” He looked around the living room. “Make yourself at home.”
He was halfway back to the bedroom before he realized that the old woman hadn’t said anything at all only shuffled over to the sofa and sat down facing the TV.
His brow furrowed in annoyance. Next time he wouldn’t use the same babysitting service. Better yet, he’d call the neighbor girl down the street.
After planting kisses on the top of their children’s heads and giving stern but distracted admonitions to be good, his wife and he swept out the door, turning the lock in the knob on the way out.
The old woman didn’t turn on the light, that was what Sue noticed first. She had crept down the stairs for the express purpose of spying on the old woman but she had almost passed her before she saw her sitting in the dark.
The TV was on mute and the light from the pictures flashed across the old woman’s eyes. She was staring blankly and for just a brief moment Sue worried that the old woman had died right there on the furniture with her eyes wide open.
Sue recoiled, a squeak escaping her throat.
The old woman’s face turned slowly toward her, unblinking.
Unable to help it, she whispered to the old woman. “Are you okay?”
The old woman nodded, then turned slowly back around.
Sue took a deep breath, then escaped to the kitchen. She took the back way through the old Victorian to return upstairs.
Back in their bedroom, Sue whispered to her brother, “She’s creepy.”
“She smells.” Marty wrinkled his nose.
“Like death. Probably,” she amended. Other than a squirrel that had been run over and decayed in the street in front of her house, she’d never had occasion to smell death. She’d never been to a funeral. But the old lady smelled like the squirrel.
“And she’s sitting on our sofa.” Marty made a barfing noise to show his displeasure and Sue nodded in agreement.
“We’ll just stay up here, okay? Leave her down there.”
At 8:55 Sue went to the stairs and called down. “We’re going to bed now.” She waited for a moment but there was only silence. She turned to her brother who shrugged from the bedroom doorway.
“She won’t come up here,” Sue said, as if trying to convince herself.
“She’d never make it up the stairs,” Marty said and Sue felt better. He was right. The old lady could barely make it to the sofa. She wasn’t going anywhere. She grinned at her brother.
They were safe.
The old woman could hear the susurration of their breaths so she knew when they were truly asleep, lost in dreams. The little boy had drifted off first, then the little girl. The old woman sat still on the sofa only the rise and fall of her chest showing life. The clock in the hall pealed eleven times, then was silent.
Her old bones cracked and her breath wheezed as she stood slowly to her feet. Outside a dog barked frantically. She turned her head, and the barking stopped with a yelp. The silence that followed was deeper somehow, sinister. The wind pressed against the windows, leaves scraped across the sidewalk like knives across bones. A chill filled the room.
The air around the woman wavered, and her face faded to darkness. Insubstantial.
She became it, and its true face was not of an old woman. In fact, it was not human at all. It was older than humanity.
Shadows moved across its skin, the fabric of its clothing shifting and moving and twisting. It crouched, groaned softly, and shifted becoming something else entirely. Long bony fingers pulled at its sleeves and its clothes fell to the floor. Freed from its shell it moved its limbs in a jerking motion. Its stomach growled loudly reminding it that it hadn’t eaten in months.
On nimble toes it crept towards the stairs.
The children lay across from one another, each in their own bed, sleeping soundly. Between the beds, the thing stood weaving and rocking, silent. Tendrils of darkness rose off of its skin and flowed over their faces, into their nostrils, seeping into their pores. The girl stirred once, then settled without a sound. The boy did not move at all.
The thing fed of their youth, drinking their memories in like sweet water. It fed until their skins dried up, their eyes like wrinkly walnuts in small black sockets. It fed until their blankets hung on the bony protrusions of their shoulder bones, their knee caps. Then it left them in their beds and crept silently to the window. The thing wasn’t sated, its belly still ached but it could wait for another night, another family to fill its belly. Its long long fingers grasped the window sill, opening it with a scrape of wood on wood. It climbed upon the sill and stretched for the tree branches just beyond the window until it heard the key in the lock downstairs. It ticked its head, the click and drag of metal sounding through the house and followed by the swift movement of air currents that billowed the curtains in the bedroom.
“Mrs. Crandall?” It heard.
Bouncing lightly on the balls of its feet it climbed back into room.