On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The neighbours all know the old woman, even though they almost never see her.
The prevailing story is that she moved into the small, quaint-looking house at the end of the lane after the previous owner, her mother, passed away sometime in the winter of 1971, or perhaps 1972. The neighbours know her as Margaret, though in truth many of them have since forgotten that name. The poor old dear has a skin condition which means she has to remain mostly housebound, but she never fails to send a Christmas card to every other house, leaves treats in a large orange bucket outside her front door for Hallowe’en, and is fairly active on the local Facebook group these days. No-one has a bad word to say about her, publicly at least.
Indeed, a few of the street’s residents are lucky enough to sometimes even set eyes upon her. Margaret always makes a point of appearing for the fireworks display in the local park on November 5th, and is friendly and complimentary even in her apparent frailty. She speaks occasionally of her late husband, and Sylvia at number 3 often says — not to Margaret’s face, of course — that by now her husband must be very late indeed.
The local children avoid the house, but that’s no surprise. The house is at the far end of a cul-de-sac, after all, and they have little reason to go there. And children can conjure fear for even the most innocuous of things, just because they lack understanding. Even so, the neighbourhood is quiet and fairly well-to-do, and so there has never been any graffiti, or vandalism, or harassment. The old woman keeps to herself, and those who live nearby allow her to do so.
There are some of the neighbours who are privately less kind, of course. They even have their own little splinter group, where they do what people do: gossip, and judge, and insinuate. Small people with small lives; the story of anywhere in the world. In their own group, they call the old woman Twitcher. And while uncharitable, it isn’t unfair.
From early in the morning til late evening, any day of the week, they see the upstairs curtains move. Whether it was a delivery van dropping something off, children playing in the street, pedestrians with a dog, or anything else, everyone knew that the old woman was watching. She watched everything. It seemed to be all that she did.
It was no wonder, some of the kinder neighbours said. The old woman lived alone, and couldn’t really go out, so of course she took an interest in the lives of those around her. Of course she would pay attention to what was going on beyond her own windows. But still.
For her own part, the old woman knew that her neighbours spoke about her behind her back, just as all of her past neighbours had. She remembered when this quaint little cul-de-sac was a field that ran downhill to a stream. There were horses kept in it, and the farmer was a man with sand-coloured hair and a booming, jovial voice. He was dead now, and had been so for a long time.
Her name wasn’t really Margaret, but it had once been Margrethe. It had been many things. Between the wars, it had been Catherine, and then when a seemly amount of time had passed, she had chosen the name Margaret in tribute to one of her most cherished former names. She kept entirely to herself for a few months, and then she took on the identity of her own fictional daughter, to satisfy the curiosity of the handful of local residents who had been there long enough to remember that anyone lived in the little house.
It had been almost seven hundred years now with the thirst.
A daily curse, brought like all curses by a man, and she as a woman doomed to suffer it. Blood was not at all to her taste, but for a time — for long centuries — she had been compelled to hunt her own former species. It had been easier then. Before the gaslight, and then the electric. And now there were recording devices everywhere, even in people’s pockets. People stayed out so much longer at night, and the hours of darkness that used to belong to her were now almost as risky as when the betraying sun filled the sky with its golden, searing light.
There were some compensations. The advent of the internet had made it much easier to obtain the needed ingredients to create her summer sustenance, to tide her over until the darker seasons. And when autumn rolled in, and the thirst deepened, she knew it wouldn’t be too long until she could hunt freely again. Regretfully and with shame, to be sure, but freely nonetheless.
It was the charities for homelessness that she was most grateful to. These days, they posted plastic sacks through people’s letterboxes, imploring householders to donate their unwanted items. Leave the sack on the street on a certain date, and it’ll be collected. The ones who came in the rented vans to pick up the meagre offerings were always migrant workers, and they came early, before the sun crested the horizon. They could vanish so easily.
They belonged to Margrethe. Them, and the increasingly rare milkmen who delivered to those who wanted to support local farmers instead of enormous supermarket chains. They came alone and they came early, and Margrethe drank from their throats.
She enjoyed the annual fireworks display in November. She would go out, wrapped up warm like the rest of them even though temperature was long-dead to her. She pretended to be a kind little old woman, smiling at children and greeting her neighbours. She pretended to walk stiffly and with a cane, and she pretended that she was not able to outrun any of their cars, and spring from the street onto a rooftop in an instant, and to scale any wall with her bare hands, scuttling with the tic tic tic of her fingernails like a thing from a nightmare.
She pretended that her false teeth did not conceal her true teeth. She pretended to be normal.
And then the spring would always come, eating into the hours of blessed darkness, and she would close the curtains a little earlier each morning, consigned to her sanctuary or her prison, able to see but not to participate.
It had been two generations since she became Margaret, and she supposed that the time was coming soon when they would start to wonder just how old the little old woman was, and why she was still alive. So it would once again be prudent to die, and become someone else, perhaps in another place. But not quite yet.
Until then, she was content to watch.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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