Something fed off the child. It came at night, from out of the closet. It fed on her, whether she was awake or asleep, for it did not care if the young saw. It knew that if the children — there had been many — said something, their elders would mock them. Punish them, even, for none have the potential to be as cruel or nonsensical as those who care for young minds.
It fed on her as she slept, her heavy breaths pained and laboured. It slurped and sucked and gulped its feast in the silence of the twilight, where only the crickets chirped, where only the owls hooted, where only the shadows lurked. It fed on her as she lay wide awake and her body trembled, her eyes open and oh so white. It fed on her as she gazed at the ceiling and tried to not look. It fed on her as she repeated the mantra, over and over and over within her mind: Eat and then go. Eat and then go. Eat and then go.
And, as was the case every night, once Old Strittie had her fill, she retreated to the place from which she’d emerged. A creaking, twitching backwards walk. A walk that seemed to hiccup and jolt every few steps, like a scratched CD or a damaged VHS tape. In reverse she walked, head down, face obscured by a cascade of long black hair, movements jerky. Backwards she crept, into the shades and silhouettes she called home.
The child could not say why, but she got the distinct impression that to look at her was the most dangerous thing to do. Yes, it depleted Sasha and — despite her young age — she knew this was bad. But so far, Old Strittie had always left.
And so far, she’d always survived the night.
But Old Strittie sapped the child of her energy, stripped her of her youth, drained her of her vibrance. A life that had once been an explosion of rainbows and colour had begun to yellow and fade; the corners curled like an old photograph.
“She used to be such an energetic child, so bubbly and vibrant!” remarked Miss Elson. “Vivacious, even! What’s happened? Is there something I need to know about?” A note of concern crept into the teacher’s voice. It had an accusatory aftertaste.
Sasha’s parents frowned and shook their heads. “No,” they said in unison. “Nothing’s changed.” And, as far as they were concerned, nothing had. As ignorant to the affairs of small children as most adults are, they knew nothing of Old Strittie. If you told them some of their old school chums had encountered the feeder from the shadows, they would have laughed and poo-pooed you. But it would be true. Oh yes, it would be true.
But the ones who encounter her in youth never make it to maturity.
The night was black, except for the purple glow from the lava lamp, which bubbled its wax, up and down, up and down, up and down. The house was deathly silent. It felt as if the very walls themselves held their breath. The carpet seemed to shrink. It cringed away into the boards, away from the gloom.
Sasha gripped her duvet, her face covered. She could hardly breathe. She focused her eyes on the closet door. The child could feel her pulse — it thundered in her temples, boomed in her eardrums. The seconds tick-tick-tocked at a snail’s pace; the cleansing rays of dawn an eternity away.
The brass knob of the door jittered, a faint metallic rattle. The little girl gasped, the air caught in her throat. She turned onto her back and locked her eyes on the ceiling as the blood in her veins turned to ice. Time stretched out before Sasha, suspended between the present and what was to come.
Creeee. The closet door started to squeak open. Creeee. A chasm of nothingness yawned open in the wake of the door. Creeee! The door stood open, swaying. The shadows seemed to bleed from out of the closet. They stained the world with their inky blackness.
And then: footsteps whispered across the carpet. A blackened silhouette lurched out of the dark. The outline of a woman with her head down, a dangle of lank hair; Old Strittie walked backwards out of the gloom.
Joints clicked and tendons creaked. The woman of shadows closed in on the child. With the crawling approach of a predatory spider, Old Strittie scuttled towards her meal. Her lurches from the closet to bed were awkward — the spectre moved in fits and spurts. She accelerated in spots, froze up and halted in others. Old Strittie moved with the air of a woman who has fought rigor mortis for a very long time.
All this Sasha watched from the periphery of her vision until Old Strittie stood by her bedside. She lingered there, swayed there, for a minute. The colour and light of the world seemed to dim — as if the hag were a black hole and pulled all into oblivion. If Sasha pricked her ears, she swore she could hear the ragged breaths that escaped those rotted lips.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Old Strittie turned around. Her naked feet padded against the carpet, her long toenails scratched at the material like thorns against the cloth. As the crone’s eyes fell upon the child, Sasha couldn’t help but utter a whimper. The sound was tiny and pathetic in the hush of the house.
And then, all was blackness. Old Strittie bent her haggard form over the child and the greasy curtain of hair fell across her face. For one awful moment, the woman hovered above her. Sasha could smell the rot and decay from her mouth, could hear her wheeze and gasp as she respired.
Next came the wet, slurping, suckling sounds.
Old Strittie began to feed.