<p>“Br-brain of hers. She lu-lusts after me, lu-lusts after the unknown, the unreal, the deviant older woman. She’s stuck here in her job, in this town, but now she’s stuck here with—”</p>
Everyone in the café turned as the glass shattered—except her. She paused only for second, pen still, gaze frozen upon that page, before resuming her frenzied scrawl.
From that trial shift onwards, she was the only customer I saw.
Her gaze first caught my attention. I then noticed the messily braided grey hair, the feline eyes bespectacled with silver frames, the ears adorned with wooden earrings dangling to the bottom of her chin. Even as she wrote furiously, the rest of her body remained eerily still. All focus was concentrated on absorbing her surroundings. She was conscious of every murmur, giggle and sigh speckling the silence of the cafe. She caught the subtle changes of conversational tone, the pauses often saying more than actual words. She captured secrets of the café perceptible only to her. I needed that notebook.
“Hey Matt, does that lady always come here and sit and write like that?”
He looked up from his phone, startled. Seemingly unaware I was still here—even though I’d been making a racket washing up.
“Um, which lady? We get a lot of regulars—”
“The one that always sits in the back, with the grey hair and all the black, and she’s always just sitting there with that notebook.”
He tilted his head back, his languid movements frustrating me more than usual. I pulled at the hangnail on my right thumbnail.
“Oh, yeah, I know the one. Yeah, she’s always here. Always orders a long black but never touches it—really hurts the barista’s feelings.”
“Have you spoken to her?”
“Pfft, nah. Legit, the only thing I’ve ever heard that woman say is ‘long black’.”
He looked back down at his phone, leaning lazily against the counter.
“Do you know anything about her? She must be from round here if she comes this often?”
“Jeez, Ella, you’re pretty obsessed with this customer for someone so new. I don’t know. Anyways, it’s five—I’m off.”
He slipped his phone into his pocket, striding to the front till, scratching his oily scalp. I don’t know why I’d expected him to have noticed anything. The guy didn’t even bother to check the doors were locked on closing shifts.
I just couldn’t think about anything else. Beyond the aloof witchiness, other things about her seemed definitively… odd. The door always banged unreasonably loud when she left, as if there were a punishing gale outside even on the mildest of days. Rambunctious children would suddenly turn mute by her table. And of course, she was always so strangely, meditatively still, as if the arm writing page after page was wholly detached from the upper body observing everything peripherally. With every shift, I grew more convinced of her strangeness. Yet no- one else seemed to notice.
The next day I was polishing the cutlery when she made her first move.
“Ah, shit. Someone’s left their bloody licence. Ella, pop it on the bench, I’ll call whoever it is in a sec.”
My manager was cleaning the tables when he’d noticed it lying on the floor. Ms Amelia Estaleene. Born May 17th, 1967. 33 Finley Drive, Canterbury, 3435. I knew she’d left it here on purpose.
By 5:30, the floors were mopped, the benches wiped. I was ready to bolt.
“Okay, the clean-up’s all done. I gotta run. See you tomorrow, David.”
I hung up my apron with fidgety excitement, striding out of the café into the winter chill. The door slammed shut, my mind flickered:
33 Finley Drive.
33 Finley Drive.
33 Finley Drive.
It was only 15 minutes away, close to the station near my old school. It felt odd to be weaving through these familiar, suburban streets, retracing my steps with fresh, feverish excitement. I’d lived near this woman for so long, yet never seen her trekking these hibiscus-dotted paths. I wondered whether maybe she’d seen me. Finally, at the turn off near the station: Finley Drive. I ruthlessly examined the house numbers: 23, 25, 27, 31—
I would have known it was hers even if I hadn’t seen the number. Framed by ornate wooden pillars, it was the dark centrepiece of a trio of townhouses. The front yard was monstrously overgrown, the elm tree extending to the second-floor window. I could barely make out the stained-glass door amidst the plants crowding the front, their branches strangling the metallic fence. Handcrafted wind chimes tangled in the slight breeze. All the curtains were drawn. I crept to the front door, laying my hand upon the cool doorknob. I wouldn’t turn it, just touch it, and back away. I’d leave it at that and plot my next move rationally, methodically.
I opened the door. Inside was a musty mausoleum, crowded with antiques. Traipsing across the hallway lined with a faded, Persian rug, I saw the walls covered with dusty shelves brimming with tarnished knick-knacks. The unlit fireplace loomed ominously. It seemed impossible that anyone actually lived here. The hallway grew narrower and darker. I wanted to turn back, but it felt too late—I had to keep moving.
I made it to the kitchen, and breathed for the first time since I’d entered the house. I surveyed the area. Newspapers covered the entirety of the bench, the surface scattered with coffee cups and wasted fountain pens. Dirty plates piled high in the sink, the dark floorboards coated in a film of dust. But the papers were dated only from yesterday. I touched one of the coffee cups. It was still warm. She was here, camouflaged in this dilapidated den. I flicked through one of the papers, its pages subsumed by her annotations. Just as I leaned down to read her looped script, an unseasonal wind roared outside. The flimsy windows whined in protest. The singular light of the kitchen flickered on. I felt the temperature drop. All initial intrigue quickly morphed into sheer panic. She was here, she knew I was here, and now I wanted out. I backtracked down the hallway, staggering over the papers strewn across the floor. My foot slipped, sending me tumbling down. Scrambling to get myself up, my limbs knocked noisily on the creaky floorboards. I looked to the left down the hallway, fixed on my escape. My legs gave way as I fumbled to stand. My breath was short and shallow, my head pulsed with nauseating terror. Just as I was finally up and ready to run, a creak sounded from behind me.
“I hope you’ve at least brought my licence?”
Her voice echoed throughout the hall. The wind silenced, the kitchen light stopped flickering. Her pitch was low, cutting through the thick, stale air of the household. Those once captivating features were now demonic. Her wrinkled mouth was now a snarl, her sharp eyes daggers, those bony hands claws ready to attack.
“I know what you’re after. Oh yes, don’t think I haven’t noticed you just as much as you’ve noticed me, Ella.”
“H— how do you k-know—”
I stammered into silence as she strode towards me. My brain screamed at my legs to flee, yet they refused to listen. Her eyes bore into mine as I stood there helplessly, mute and paralysed. This was the end. I pictured the basement where I’d be held prisoner, the missing person reports that would soon spread. Fragmented images of my own funeral ran through my mind as she drifted closer, lightheadedness overwhelming me. Three more steps towards me and I’d be gone. Two more steps left, I stopped breathing. I closed my eyes. One more step and—
Suddenly, she halted her stride. I opened my eyes when I didn’t hear the floorboards creak. I looked to see her studying me with that exposing gaze before she quickly ducked to the kitchen. Before I could even exhale, though, she was back there in front of me. She now held the notebook for me to accept.
“This is what you came for, right?”
Her sardonic tone jolted me from paralysis. Right there, held out in front of me like that—it was irresistible. Automatically my hands took the book, my fingertips tingling.
“Well, read away! I know you’ve been wanting to since the second you saw me, Ella.”
I obeyed, slowly opening the ragged notebook. The binding was barely intact. I felt her eyes staring down, her thin, towering figure leaning over me like a vulture.
“Well, go on! Read it for Christ’s sake! You’ve been just so awfully keen to see what’s on those pages, haven’t you?”
My eyes darted towards her, her brow arched, her arms contemptuously crossed. Still, with a slow, deep breath, I collected myself, turning to the most recent entry. It was written only this morning.
The woman behind me takes another passive aggressive dig at her husband. She thinks he hasn’t noticed her new top, or the auburn highlights fresh from only two days ago. He noticed her new perfume too. The musk is nauseating. He hates the amount of powder she has on now. Snowflaking off of her face every time she sighs, every time she looks away. Disgusting. She’s bored. He knows. She can’t wait for him to go on his business trip tomorrow. He stayed back late four times this week. She sips her skinny latte. He turns the page of his crossword—
“We both know you don’t care about that couple. Turn to the next page.”
How did she know all this about complete strangers? Did she know all this?
“I said, ‘Turn to the next page’.”
Her command forced my hand into motion, my eyes flitting straight to what I knew she wanted me to see. Beads of sweat began to drip down my neck, as I glanced up and back from her to the book. I began to read.
She watches me, and her pulse quickens. She’s pestered her coworker about who I am, about where I live. Later they’ll find my licence, and she won’t be able to stop herself. She’ll memorise the details, and come around later tonight. She’ll tell herself she’ll only have a quick look at the house, that she’ll control herself. Then she’ll discover the unlocked door. She can’t help it, yearning for excitement, for something more. She’ll find me waiting, watching. She’ll freeze for a moment, too captivated by the sight of my notebook to flee. She’ll read this section—
The script was uniform. The smudged ink was dry. And there was too much on that page for this to have just been written. She’d completed this passage long before I’d entered.
“H- h- how can you know all this?”
“Keep reading. Out loud.”
I looked down and noticed blood smeared down my left thumb from pulling on the hangnail.
“I said, KEEP READING.”
Her order rang with the force of a tempestuous gale. She began to creep towards me, the black drapes of her skirt hissing menacingly along the floor, the corners of her mouth lifting into a nightmarish smile. I saw the peek of yellowed, pointed teeth. A snake’s fangs ready to strike.
“She-she’ll read this section aloud to me, and then she’ll see me coming towards her—”
As she crept closer she seemed to grow larger. I could see the full top row of her fangs. I noticed the demonic glint flickering in those narrow, jet-black eyes.
“C-coming towards her. Sh-she’ll see me up close. As horrified as she’ll be, she won’t be able to l-look away. She’ll look closely at the face she’s obsessively wa-watched day after d-day. I know how often she’s thought about me, how many stories she’s c-concocted in that fev-feverish brain of hers—”
I realised I’d begun to creep backwards as she edged closer towards me. The woman grew larger with every word that left my mouth, yet her figure seemed to grow fainter, a deathly phantom towering over my shrinking frame. The wind outside whined louder and louder, reverberating throughout the antiquated frame of this tomb. I felt a sudden sense of heat against the side of my calves. The fireplace was now on. I saw an amber glow in my periphery. The candles atop the mantlepiece were now alight.
“I said, KEEP READING.”
“Br-brain of hers. She lu-lusts after me, lu-lusts after the unknown, the unreal, the deviant older woman. She’s stuck here in her job, in this town, but now she’s stuck here with—”
My legs gave way as she continued to slither towards me. I tumbled to the ground, the notebook flying out of my hand. The hellish spectre grew larger and larger. I felt the rising heat, I smelt smoke. The curtains caught flame. The howl of the wind crescendoed into a ghoulish chorus matched only by the volume of her spine-chilling cackle. Her devilish snarl widened as the surrounding flames flickered furiously. A petrified scream escaped my lips. I was about to be engulfed by the smoke, by the flames now consuming the hallway, by this infernal woman. My legs writhed in a last-minute escape attempt, kicking the notebook into the fireplace’s depths. The laughter grew louder as specks of darkness shrouded my vision. Her narrow eyes glowered red. Her wiry grey hair had formed into Medusa-like tendrils. Her laughter was all I could hear, those eyes, those fangs were all I could see. My hands slid across the dusty floorboards. As the notebook burned, her expression grew more menacing, more terrifying. Her arms stretched out towards my throat, pinsharp talons making their way towards my bare skin. Her face was now right next to mine, her cool, ghostly hands now tightening around my neck. I was about to be swallowed whole. My eyes closed, my arms fell to my sides. I gasped my last breath, fading out of consciousness. The notebook continued to burn, voracious flames eating away at every word. The woman kept cackling wildly, her laughter echoing throughout the house.
Suddenly, a shriek erupted from the fireplace. The orange flames flitted to green, to magenta, to white. Only a few curled pages remained undevoured by flames. The woman’s figure began to shrink. The loudening squeal of the fireplace drowned out her devilish squawk. The spectre began screaming, panicking at her waning power. The staircase screeched, the windows banged open, the wind howled with vengeance. The woman was finally mute. As the last fragments of that notebook were consumed ablaze, she tumbled to the floor. The red glint of her eyes began to fade, her veins blackened against her pale, paper-thin skin. Her breathing slowed, and her arms fell as her head rolled to the side. The ornate metal framework of the fireplace crumpled, buckled, surrendered.
All was ashes, drained and still.