The sign beside the entrance gate was large enough to read a hundred yards off. Ivydene Care Home for the Elderly. Gold curlicued lettering on a livery green background. You’ve all seen similar, all with similar names. ‘Sunnydale’. ‘Hollybrook’. Three syllables every time, the first two alluding to a pleasant state of nature, and the third to a pastoral setting. It all boils down to the same thing. Pastel walls and bits of chintz, and that smell such places have. And residents in such states of decay, mental and physical, it makes you pray you’ll be hit by a train when you’re, oh, round seventy five.
Strange how I didn’t say seventy, isn’t it? The Biblical three-score-and-ten? These days, we even try to steal from God.
Though some, as it turned out -- some more than others.
Anyway, as I walked towards the gateway down the narrow, bumpy road, my stomach was already tightening. How many years had gone by since I’d been inside an establishment like this? Not since I’d been twenty, I remembered, visiting my dying uncle Ted.
Fifteen years then. And not long enough by half.
And the worst of it was that, save for sleeping in a central London doorway, I was not left with much choice in the matter.
You might have heard of me, if you frequent the folk music scene. If. Not much chance of that, these days. When I started performing it was better, but since the mid-Eighties ...
I have played to audiences you could get to know personally. I’ve had record sales that have almost reached three figures. If it weren’t for session work, and the occasional festival, I would have been forced to quit years ago. As it was, I’d spent the first part of this year working in a music shop, until it was obliged to close, to make way for a mall.
Kenny McClure, by the way. As of the beginning of this month, my life has been reduced to the simplest of choices. Eat, or pay the rent.
My parents both died a decade back, happy in the knowledge that their son would be famous one day. But I had an Aunt Barbara, who liked me for some reason, and who’d told me long ago that if I ever needed help then I should turn to her.
“Well, I could give you some money,” came her prim voice over the phone. I shrivelled inwardly at the ominous sound of that. “But I have a far better idea.”
“You remember your Great-Aunt Sarah? Noemi’s mother. You could have only met her once."
Probably when I was three. I racked my brains, but could not recall any great-aunts whatsoever.
“Anyway, she’s very old now. In her late nineties. She’s in a home, of course, down in Birchiam-on-Sea. Noemi usually visits her twice a week. She’s a good girl like that. Brings her food. Keeps her company. Reads to her, that kind of thing. But now -- oh, sorry, I doubt that you know. Noemi broke her ankle two weeks back, and hasn’t been able to make the trip. If you’d like to take over for her for a few weeks --"
I almost broke in with a protest at that point, but managed to hold my tongue.
“Just till Noemi’s mobile again, you understand. The family has property down there, there’s a flat in it for you until matters are resolved. And I’m sure that, between us, Noemi and I can scrape together an allowance for your trouble.”
Here I was then. Holed away in Backend-of-Beyond-on-Sea, and trudging down a poorly maintained road to start my new career as daycare worker.
Folk music was definitely a wrong turning. It should have been the blues.
Not that my surroundings were too bad. The South Coast of England, in that month before the heat of summer, is hardly the worst place in the world to be. I had gone outside the town itself -- only a few red-tiled rooftops showed over a hill’s crest. To my left was heathland, then ferns, then the little wood I’d walked through to get this far. To my right, the land declined to the edge of a cliff. I could make out blue-grey water foaming gently around rocks. It got far darker as it stretched towards the horizon, and the sky which met it was an eggshell blue, smudged with just a few white clouds. Black-headed gulls hovered. The sharp smell of ozone cleansed my lungs of city grime.
For a few weeks, not too bad at all. A retreat. A respite. I might even -- no, might definitely -- write some songs here.
I was already looking forward to getting this first visit over with, returning to the flat, where my guitar waited.
Of Ivydene at all, there was no sign, except for the sign. I could see the old iron gates well enough, but the gravel track beyond them curved away. The neatly-trimmed dark hedges, either side, were so tall I could not make out a roof’s edge or a chimney-pot. What is it that places such as these do for old people? Hide them away from the world, or hide the world from them?
Whatever, I got to the gates at last, to find a bell-push, though no intercom beside it. Dutifully pushed. Dutifully waited.
One of the staff, in a nurse-style uniform, came down the track within a minute.
It was hard to place her age. Early thirties? Ten years more? The pallid smoothness of her face made it hard to tell. She might have been attractive, if she hadn’t been on the heavy-boned side. Such a very square jaw. And she had those kind of grey irises that look like pale smudges of charcoal, half-erased.
Her smile was warm enough though, her manner brisk but friendly. She introduced herself as Kath -- “We use first names here” -- and told me I’d been expected.
“How long is it since you’ve seen your Auntie Sarah?” she asked as we went along the gravel, side by side. She walked with the hurriedness of someone who has plenty more to do.
“Uh -- not since I was a kid.”
“Then you’ll have to be prepared. She’s had three strokes in the last ten years, two before she came here, one with us. She’s wheelchair bound, has no mobility at all on the left side of her body, very little on her right. Mentally, she has deteriorated too, particularly in the last few months. You’ll find that her attention keeps on fading in and out. And she gets some funny ideas sometimes. They all do.”
She said that last bit in the tone of an indulgent kindergarten teacher, talking about four year olds. With real humour and warmth. This Kath wasn’t too bad at all, I decided. A lot better than I’d be, doing the same job.
The building, when it came in sight just past a line of firs, was nothing special. Just a big, two-storey Edwardian pile, sprawling off in all directions into wings and side extensions. Well maintained all over. The windows glinted with polish.
There were chintz curtains at each of them.
I drew up my shoulders before following Kath inside.
I wasn’t the only visitor; I’d noticed a row of parked cars -- some of them quite pricey -- just before we’d reached the front door. The interior was exactly as I had imagined, though. Pastel walls. Reproduction coffee tables, battered sofas. And that smell was there, though heavily subdued. They seemed to keep this whole place quite spotlessly clean.
At various points, in the large room we’d entered, middle aged couples, sometimes with their kids and sometimes not, sat around figures so shrivelled they might be mummified. A few conversations were taking place, conducted at a whisper. But some of the little groups just sat there in dumb silence.
“This is one of our dayrooms,” Kath informed me, her own tone quieter now. “If you’ll follow me.”
We went off down a corridor, past doors with name-tags on them. Most of them were closed. Or if they were open, the rooms were empty.
‘‘Sarah likes to keep herself to herself these days, Kath was going on. “She’s been quite lonely since her daughter stopped coming. She’ll be pleased to see you.”
Just before we stopped, we passed the open doorway to a room that was occupied. It was just the same as all the others, small, a narrow bed. Floral wallpaper, a dresser with a mirror, a closet. A radio, portable tv, and a window looking out across the grounds.
Except this one had someone in it, on the bed. And others in attendance.
The figure on the rumpled sheets lay perfectly still, save for the fluttering of her eyelids. She had to be just as old as Sarah, with limbs like sticks and hair as white as cotton-balls. There was not one visible area of her skin that did not have liver spots.
A doctor in a white coat was holding her limp wrist, taking her pulse. A younger woman, dressed like Kath, was standing just behind him, watching anxiously.
Both of them had Kath’s pallor. And the same heavy bones and same square jaw, I noticed. As though they were distantly related. Were they?
“That’s Elsie,” Kath whispered, drawing me away gently. “It’s best to leave her alone. She’s not well at all.”
The next door was shut, but she knocked on it, then pushed it wide. No lights were on in here. I’d have expected the occupant to be asleep. But she was sat up in her wheelchair instead, framed by the tall window, her back to us.
Didn’t budge as we came inside.
“She’s rather deaf,” Kath smiled.
She went up, put her hand on the old woman’s robed shoulder. The grey head jerked.
“Sarah?” Kath bent to the woman’s ear, turning the wheelchair around as she did so. “There’s someone here to see you."
“Someone?” It came out as a feeble croak, barely a word at all. Sarah appeared to be trying to duck her head away from the uniformed woman, even as she helped her.
“Your great nephew, Kenneth,” Kath persisted. “He’s come to visit you till Noemi can get back."
My great aunt went limp suddenly, stopped fidgeting around. Her eyes filled up with dampness.
They were very clear and blue, those eyes. Remarkable in such a collapsed face. They couldn’t have changed since she’d been young, for some reason. Were full of intelligence, and had a spark of brightness in them.
And the sight of them transformed my whole attitude towards this new duty of mine. They made me see her as a human being, for the first time since I’d accepted the task. Even made me want to stay a while.
Kath pushed the brake back down on the wheelchair, then walked round me to the door.
“Just press the buzzer if you need anything. I’ll leave you to it.”
She had maintained the air of someone with a lot to do. I heard her footsteps go off down the corridor a little way, then slow, stop. Voices murmured. She’d gone into Elsie’s room. ‘Not at all well’ Elsie. That had to mean ‘dying’.
I looked back at my great aunt, who was sitting like a statue in that wheelchair now, her eyes on me suspiciously.
Forced a grin. Tried to think how to start out.
The straightforwardness of her gaze was such, I opted for honesty.
“I suppose you don’t know who I am?”
Her head gave a sideways twitch which I took for a shake. She didn’t seem particularly deaf.
“The same on my part, I’m afraid. I don’t recall you. Mind if I sit down?”
The edge of the bed was the only spot available. I gestured towards it, but she only shook her head again.
“First -- close -- the door.”
The words came out as dry, husked whispers, unbearably slow.
I was surprised by the request, though. Why the need for privacy? Then I remembered what Kath had told me, about the funny ideas she’d been getting. Better to humour her. I did as she asked.
A bedward twitch of her chin told me that it was okay to sit now.
She was staring at me very hard, as though trying to focus her complete attention on me.
I kept up my fixed smile. “That’s right.”
“Alice -- and Ray’s -- boy?”
It had been years since I’d heard those names spoken together. When I answered this time, it was with a slow, loose nod, a rather sad one.
Suddenly, my great aunt’s blue stare went off to the side. To the wall which stood between us and the dying woman’s room. Her mouth pursed on the right side -- the left stayed immobile. Then, she almost tried to lean towards me, before lifting up a trembling right hand.
“Get -- me -- out.” It came as a sharp hissing. “Please -- get -- me -- out.”
If I was surprised, it wasn’t for too long. Because her words brought back other memories, Of visiting my uncle Ted, all those years ago. And a friend in hospital once, he dying of cancer.
Hadn’t they both said the exact same kind of thing to me? Take me home. Take me away. Get me out of here.
No one wants to spend their last hours in an institution, no matter how pleasant it might be.
I met her gaze carefully now, and held her shaking fingers.
“That’s just silly, Sarah. You’re being well looked after here. The staff seem to be nice. Who would be able to care for you, if it weren’t for them?” I glanced past her, through the window. “Look at this nice view. I wouldn’t mind a room here myself.”
Nothing I had said, though, seemed to alter her mind in the slightest. The right side of her mouth stayed tightly pursed. Her gaze was almost fierce as it continued to examine me. Finally, her hand dropped back to her lap and she sighed.
“Just -- as stupid -- as Noemi,” she muttered.
Then she became completely still, her eyelids fluttering shut.
She wasn’t asleep -- I could tell that by her breathing. So I was just forced to sit there, waiting for something more to happen.
When it hadn’t after five more minutes, I concluded that nothing was going to.
I tried talking to her again. No response at all.
Waited another while, before I tried to goad her into action by announcing, “Look, I have to go now.”
I said it very clearly, and she must have heard me. But there was not a flicker of a response. Not a twitch.
I got back up to my feet at last, edged off towards the door. She was still motionless as I opened it and went on through. I held the knob. Waited in the corridor outside for a few seconds.
“Bye, Aunt Sarah,” I murmured at last.
So I let the door go.
Kath was not around, nor anybody else. And the door to Elsie’s room was shut by now. I hung there sadly for a couple more moments, then started making my way back towards the dayroom once again.
Most of the visitors had gone by this time, though a few of the old residents were still in tall armchairs, asleep. A vacuum cleaner was whining. A young Filipino girl was working at the dark-brown carpet.
She too had a square jaw, heavy bones. And her skin, which should have been olive, was pasty.
It had to be from working here, that sallowness. It would affect anyone’s pallor.
My lungs filled up deeply with salt air, the moment I stepped outside.
I got on the phone to Aunt Barbara that evening, as soon as she was back from the charity shop she ran.
She sounded amused. “Oh, take no notice. She’s always doing that. Drives poor Noemi quite mad with it sometimes. I’m afraid her mind’s quite gone. She even seems to think she’s in a restaurant at times.
“A -- what?”
It didn’t seem to tie in with the brightness in her eyes, however. And she’d remembered my parents’ names quite clearly.
I spent the next couple of hours trying to compose a ballad, and then took myself off to the corner pub. There were a couple of attractive women at the bar, but the local young men just kept frowning at me. Made it clear, without words, that I ought to keep my distance.
I drank a couple of pints, took a walk along the sea-front, then went back home to an early bed.
Which meant consequently, that I arose far earlier than I usually do in London, head clear as a bell and full of energy.
And nothing to expend it on.
I managed to kill time till almost ten, then took the slow walk down to Ivydene again.
It wasn’t Kath who answered the buzzer this time. Instead, it was a younger man, who introduced himself as Robert. This one smiled and joked a lot, until my stare made him uncomfortable.
Ginger hair, he had. Green eyes.
And heavy bones, a square jaw, and a pallor.
Some local characteristic? I hadn’t noticed it at the pub. But I forced myself to stop it. He relaxed again quickly enough.
The room next to my aunt’s was open once again. And its occupant seemed to be in a worse state than ever. Yesterday, Elsie had been completely moveless. Today, however, she kept arcing her back, though her eyes stayed closed. Her grey, bloodless lips were part way open, and small moans were issuing from between them.
The doctor was in attendance once more. And behind him this time was Kath, who looked up, recognising me, and nodded.
Robert opened my aunt’s door.
“If you need anything --"
“Yes, I know.”
“Feel free to let yourself in and out.”
Sarah was in bed this time, her shoulders propped against the headboard, her eyes open.
So bright blue.
Yet they fixed on Robert rather than myself. Watched him almost angrily as he excused himself.
Drifted shut the moment that he’d left.
Her right hand came up weakly though, indicating I should close the door again. She seemed tireder than yesterday.
I could hear Robert’s footsteps going into Elsie’s room.
Sarah patted the edge of her mattress, summoning me there. And, as soon as I’d complied, her hand took hold of my trouser leg. Pulled it, getting my complete attention.
She was looking straight up at me now.
“Lis-ten!” That fierce hiss once more.
“I am. Really.”
She regarded the wall, as she’d done yesterday. I could still hear faint moans from Elsie, coming from beyond it. “Them. They’re -- after her. The -- waiters.”
I blinked a couple of times, trying to think what she could mean. “What waiters? Do you want me to call someone?”
“No!” And she seemed furious now, though it was locked within that stiff shell of a body. “They -- are -- waiters!”
I tried to be patient with her, explain to her the way things really were.
“They’re not waiters, Sarah, they’re care staff. They’re here to make you comfortable, not just bring you food. And I’ve got to say, they seem to be doing a good job of it. They all work very hard.”
Her hand only yanked at my leg again, more violently this time.
“No! Not waiters! Wait-ers!”
“Her mind’s got even worse recently,” Kath explained to me later, walking across the grounds. “Not to mention how the long term memory plays tricks at that age. Her daughter’s told us how Sarah and her husband used to be high fliers, just before the War. Society balls. Posh hotels. Perhaps that’s where she thinks she is now. In which case, I must say, I wish that she’d start tipping.”
Which got a laugh from me. And I badly needed to laugh, by that stage.
I let myself out about lunch time, the whole atmosphere of the place having got to me. The doctor and others had kept coming and going continuously from Elsie's room, next door. And Aunt Sarah had clammed up all over again.
Boredom, frustration, and thoughts of my own mortality all juggled for position in my head. I went to another pub to eat. Then found some steps down to a beach just at the far edge of the cliff. Walked along it for a good while. Skipped some stones. Started writing my name in the wet sand and then scrubbed it out. The kind of things you do when you’re alone for hours.
The wind had changed, bringing clouds with it, and an early dusk was on its way by the time I made my way back up. As I drew near Ivydene again, I saw that the gates were slightly open. There was no need to bother anyone by buzzing, this time. So far, after all, I’d come and gone exactly as I pleased. No one would mind.
There was something that made me open the front door of the building quietly, though. Almost warily.
The dayroom was entirely deserted, when I peered in. Not so much as one shrivelled figure in a chair. A breathless silence reigned.
There were no noises from the corridors leading off it, either. Not the murmur of a television. Not the rattle of a wheel.
The same feeling that had made me cautious directed the lightness of my tread as I went in Sarah’s direction. Elsie’s door was shut now. Was she dead?
All the lights were off again in my aunt’s little room, the window a rectangle of grey against the deeper darkness. As my eyes adjusted, though, I could make out that she was in the same place that I had left her. Twin glitters from her eyes showed the position of her face.
I didn’t need telling, this time. Shut the door behind me, oh so softly. Then I went across. Sat down by the aged woman, and clicked on the little bedside lamp.
And a cold, hard stone settled in the pit of my stomach, when she looked up at me.
There was no way to tell how long she had been crying. Since I’d gone away, perhaps? But the whole of her face, below her eyes, was streaked, smeared, damp. The lids were puffy and the edges red and sore. Her blue irises appeared all the brighter for that.
I was troubled, shocked. Wanted to say something -- but I was not sure quite what.
Her wet gaze forbade me, besides. And the index finger of her mobile right hand tried to raise itself towards her lips, only getting half way before dropping back.
The message was clear, though. Shhh!
That hand closed around my wrist a moment later. Surprisingly tightly, for a woman so infirm. Tugged again. She wanted me to bend closer. Wanted to tell me something, a secret perhaps.
Puzzledly, I put my ear next to her mouth.
For God’s sake, not this again!
I began straightening up, exasperated. But her grip became so tight it pinched the bone. Desperation of some kind was driving the old woman now.
“No!” She hissed out, her breath cold against my cheek. “You -- wait.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was driving at in the slightest. Wait for what?
As though in answer, there was a low bump and then a murmur from the next-door room. People were in there again, though I’d seen no chinks of light when I’d passed by. Sarah’s blue gaze darted to the wall in agitation. I could think of nothing else to do but remain still and listen.
Had they been friends at one time, Sarah and old Elsie? And might that explain the agitation and the tears? She had to know what was happening. What was taking place next door.
Another set of footsteps started coming down the passage. A man’s, it sounded like. The neighbouring door, opened, then shut gently. I could hear another voice now.
Robert. It was definitely Kath who answered. Then, another female voice I didn’t recognise. And then another man. The doctor I’d seen?
All of them were talking in the same hushed, solemn tones. Elsie had to be far closer to departure.
Sarah’s bony hand stayed round me, holding me in place.
Within the next five minutes, two more sets of footfalls came along the passageway and went into the room, though there was no further talking now. That had to be --
Six staff at least, in there. And these rooms could only be nine feet by seven. The bed half filled them. This didn’t seem right. What were they having in there, a convention?
When more shoes started clumping down the hail, I decided to check things out. I turned the bedside lamp off first -- Sarah let go of me easily this time.
Then, sidling gently to the door, I opened it a bare couple of inches. And peeped out.
It was three women, none of them in the uniform of care staff. One was the Filipino cleaner I’d seen yesterday, just as unlovely as before. The other two were in white, looked like cooks. A short, Spanish-looking girl. And an enormous African.
All three were uniformly square-jawed, heavy-boned, and pallid. The African looked dark-grey, more a murk than a real colour.
I slipped back, pulled the door against its frame without letting the latch click, as they drew closer. They didn’t seem to notice me.
And, when they’d disappeared next-door this time, I heard a key turn in a lock.
What were they doing?
I edged out into the corridor, just in time to see a light spread out from under Elsie’s door. There was nothing natural about the glow, however.
It was not yellow or white, but a bluish-green.
Back into the room, quickly. Sarah had her eyes squeezed shut by now. Her breathing was rapid. Her right hand was clasped around a knot of blanket, shaking.
She seemed to be terrified. I could sympathise.
I tried to work out what was happening. Think what to do next.
Looked round at the window. It had turned impenetrably dark outside, the nearest trees reduced to vague suggestions. But ... was there a hint of that strange glow, just along the ground off to the right? Was a curtain open?
I clenched both fists momentarily, then pushed the window wide. It was new, made not a squeak.
And, lowering myself to the ground, crept along the wall.
There could have only been a gap of half an inch, in the drapes at Elsie’s window. I approached it so slowly, so afraid of being seen.
And needn’t have bothered with such caution, as it turned out.
Apart from the figure on the bed, there were nine people in there. Kath, Robert, the doctor. Kath’s junior I’d seen before. Another woman of the same age, dressed in office clothes. The cleaner-cook trio. And an older man with a grey beard, who looked like a gardener. They were ranked in a neat arc around the bottom corner of the bed. And none of them was looking anywhere but downward.
On the dresser, a lamp had been set. Rather like a storm-lamp, but taller and narrower. Its element appeared to be fizzing, crackling slightly. It was this emitting the weird blue-green light.
Old Elsie was bathed in it, save where the shadows of the staff gave it a deeper hue. Whether she noticed it at all was quite impossible to say. She was the same as she had been this morning, both eyes knitted tightly shut, back arcing. But she made no sounds now, even when her mouth came open. And the spasming was growing feebler, even as I watched. All her last strength leaving her.
Do something, I thought.
I looked back up at the others.
She is on the point of dying. For heaven’s sake, do something.
And perhaps -- reasonably -- there was nothing that they could do. But why were they just standing there? Just watching?
They were, each of them, in a similar posture. Feet apart and legs straight. Their hands clasped together gently, their arms slack. Heads all tilted down. And the faces, the eyes, all expressionless and blank.
As though they were patiently ... waiting for something.
Within another minute, Elsie’s jerks became far fainter, till she lay quite motionless. And still no one moved. Was she even breathing by this time?
Suddenly, her back arced violently, lifting all but her head, shoulders, and her heels clear off the mattress. She subsided back so slowly, like a thin balloon deflating.
Now, her eyes came open just a little. Thin crescents of coldness were revealed. Her upper lip slid away, showing teeth, the tiny muscles no longer controlling it.
Gone. I’d seen this before. She was gone.
And still, not one of the others moved.
The lamp continued to fizz and pop. Its glow made an unworldly tableau of the entire scene.
And when something did move, finally, it was not from the direction I’d expected.
At the centre of Elsie’s nightgowned chest, a bulge appeared. It was translucent, swirling. Looked like smoke.
Seemed to become larger.
But it wasn’t that.
It was something rising into view. Coming out of her.
It resolved itself into the vague shape of a head. A neck and shoulders followed. Then a torso. Wispy. Like a darkened mist.
Insubstantial, narrow arms raised themselves up to heaven.
And -- was that a smile that I could make out on the apparition’s face? An expression of relief, release? Of joy?
Was this -- I could scarcely believe it, my mind fought to take it in -- was this Elsie’s soul? And had the light revealed it?
There was other movement by this time, though not one of the other nine had yet shifted a limb.
Faces became elongated, stretched until they were rectangular. Fingers started lengthening, boneless now and rubbery. Eyes became triangular slits. And their mouths had taken on the shape of funnels.
My eyes widened, and my jaw clenched so hard it was painful. None of the gathered staff were human.
Just as Elsie’s spirit was about to break free of her corpse, the doctor and Kath -- or rather, the things that had been the doctor and Kath -- lunged forwards with the deadly swiftness of wild predators. Caught it in those tentacle-like fingers they’d grown, and dragged it down. It seemed incapable of making noises, but it writhed furiously, desperately, in their grip.
The vague shape of its mouth was open in a silent scream as it fought. And it threw its head back, looking upwards, as though seeking help. From some power above.
The others were closing in by now, helping to pin it to the bed.
And as I watched -- too horrified to even blink -- they proceeded to tear it limb from limb.
And then, devour it.
Shapeless scraps of filmy matter went into those funnelled mouths, were sucked away.
Until there was nothing left.
They all looked dully satisfied when it was over, whatever they were. You half expected them to start sucking their fingers, massaging their bellies. As though they’d gone hungry for a good long while, waiting for tonight’s repast.
And as for Elsie?
Heaven or Hell? She’d get to see neither now.
Eternal life? She’d never know it.
Her body was already dead. And now, her immortal soul had been destroyed completely.
I took a step back, lungs burning for lack of air, my heart pounding so hard that it seemed to jolt my brain. And then I was really moving. Back along the wall. Back in through the window. Looked around for Sarah’s wheelchair, then decided there was no time left for that. I simply wrapped her up in the bed’s quilt -- she was trying to nod and smile as I did so -- and then scooped her up in both my arms and went back through the window.
I kept whispering in her ear, all the while I ran. “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you. I am so, so sorry.”
I could feel her right hand clutch at my lapel. And she was crying again, though with relief this time.
It was only when I reached the gate that I heard shouting from behind me.
I chanced a look back, almost stumbled. Lights had been switched on in Sarah’s room, there was a silhouetted figure at the pane.
Torch beams began flashing at the front door, bare seconds after that.
I just turned, and ran still harder.
Sarah was light enough, for the first quarter mile. But after that, her weight between my arms seemed to be pulling down increasingly. My legs and my lungs were giving in to the slow pressure. I would never make it to the town.
A car was coming up along the gravel track by now, its headlamps searching for me. I looked to my right, and there was the dim outline of the woods.
Crashing through the ferns, I went. Then in amongst the trees.
I found the deepest, darkest spot I could. Quite exhausted now. Knew that I could go no further. So I just sat down, my aunt across my lap. Pulled as much undergrowth across me as I could get hold of. And became still. And waited.
The car pulled up, out on the road. Then the others came crashing through the way I’d come. Beams of light tried to penetrate the blackness, but there were so many thin tree trunks they did not get far.
Someone came within twenty yards of me at one stage, before stumbling away in the wrong direction. The noises of searching grew fainter as an hour passed.
“There,” I whispered to Sarah, once they were far enough away. “You’re safe now. They won’t get you.”
It was much too dark, in here, to even see her face. But she took hold very softly of my hand. Moved it until it had touched her mouth. Guided it along the outline. The right side was smiling.
The car was still out there, three hours later. Moving up the road a little bit, then coming back. And distant voices still rang through the woods occasionally. I didn’t think they’d find us, but they were not giving up.
I wasn’t sure how long it was until I fell into a restless, hunched-up doze. But when I came fully awake again, my hips were rigid, and there was no circulation in my legs. It hurt like all hell, but I clung onto my silence.
The air of the woods around me had grown paler. Dawn was on its way.
Gradually, the sunlight showed me Sarah’s face. No surprises there. I’d known, for quite a while now, that she was no longer breathing.
It was more, serene, more peaceful, than anything I’d ever seen. Happy, in the knowledge that she had truly escaped this world.
You’re safe now , I had said to her.
Now she really was. I brushed her hair back from her forehead.
Very slowly and painfully, I got back to my feet, taking the old woman up with me. And, holding her as before, I went at a hobble back towards the road. Pins-and-needles in my legs. Leaves stuck in my hair. I didn’t give a damn.
The others? What could they do now? What could they do?
The car was parked beside the gate by this time, almost half a mile away. As I stepped onto the road, the doctor climbed out of it. Stood there, watching me.
All the others joined him before too much longer. There was an angry set to their bodies. I’d cheated them. But I was unafraid.
What might they do? Kill me? Well, I doubted that. Doubted they had ever broken any law.
They had not killed Elsie, not that I’d seen. They had not killed any of the others they had doubtless preyed upon.
Simply ... made of inaction a strategy.
Simply ... waited for them to die.
As for me ... we kept on staring at each other ... I, equally, had few options. Tell anyone about this, and I’d end up in a home myself, but of a different kind.
At long last, the doctor raised his palm grudgingly, reaching out towards me.
And I understood. They could not harm her now, could not feast on her. And so had no more use for her. They would do what they were supposed to do, their job. Contact the relatives and tell them the sad news. And keep the body clean and safe, until it was collected for its final journey.
I hated them, always would, as much as they doubtless hated me right now. But what other choice was there? So I nodded back.
I said goodbye to Sarah as I laid her down for the last time. Could already hear the car starting up.
Then I turned, and went away from there. And never once looked back.
My friend Paul had been collecting my mail while I’d been away. It was only a small bundle, but contained one very big surprise. A festival was being held in Dublin just next week, one of the acts had dropped out at the last moment, and could I take his place?
It was enough money to keep me going for a while. And there was even a room at a Holiday Inn. That in itself would seem like heaven, after what I’d been through.
I was well-received, and made friends at the bar with several famous names. And by three that next morning, my ego had been massaged well enough with praise, my brain with drink, that I had almost put the whole thing out of my mind. For tonight at least.
It was only when I stumbled back to my room that I saw a corner of white paper, sticking out from underneath my door.
It was unsigned, a simple note.
But I got hardly any sleep at all, for a whole month after that.
It just read:
WE’LL BE WAITING FOR YOU.
This story first appeared in April 2006 in Weird Tales #339.
Copyright © Tony Richards 2006.