By Edele Winnie
Sherry first saw the note on her way into the laundry room. She rented one of the second floor units in an old house that had been broken up into six apartments. The units were small but nice- hard wood floors, big closets, and hot water radiator heating that really kept the place warm even in this exceptionally severe winter. She’d only been there for three months, but she liked it. Everyone was pretty quiet, all young professionals except for the old woman downstairs. She gave no trouble either- they put their rent cheques in envelopes and slid them under her door. Sherry couldn’t even remember her name.
One thing that was not good about the house was that the stairways were narrow and the stairs were old fashioned steep. Sherry was coming down with two full baskets of laundry and her detergent and drier sheets. She should have made two trips, but she was always trying to cut corners to save time- a habit she’d picked up from her parents. That rushing had killed them in a car accident, but she didn’t like to think about that. She’d made it to the bottom of the steep back stairs and was trying to get the door to the laundry room open when she saw the note pinned to the door. It was written in the scrawly hand of the old lady and it read, “don’t let the little girl in.”
She got pushed the door open, forgot about the note and went down the two little steps into the laundry area. Both the washer and dryer were already rumbling- someone else was doing late night laundry. She sat the baskets down by the back door and considered leaving them there- no one would steal her dirty laundry in this building- when she saw something move in the back yard. The back door had a big window in the top half and there was also a window over the drier. She looked carefully, wondering what was out there but the darkness came so early in the winter and the overgrown and snowy yard was deep with wintery shadow. Maybe a bunny, she thought. She should bring some carrots down for the poor thing. A little winter feast. She decided to leave the laundry baskets, and trotted back up the stairs to her apartment, where she was distracted by the reading she was supposed to do for work for tomorrow.
Her phone woke her- she’d fallen asleep reading on the couch and now it was the middle of the night. It was Alec, her boyfriend. He was a sweet man, more emotional than she. He’d had a bad dream and had called just to hear her voice.
“What was the dream about?” She asked, stretching her cramped arms and legs and flexing her feet.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Come on Alec, it was just a dream.”
He hesitated. “Something bad happened to you.”
“What was it?” She had always been interested in dreams and nightmares.
“I couldn’t tell- it was just something bad, it had you and it wouldn’t let you go.”
He changed the subject and when he had calmed down they said their I-love-yous and he went back to bed. Might as well get to that laundry, she thought. The clock said two in the morning. She was confident the washer and the drier would be available at this time. She tiptoed down, not wanting to disturb anyone else in the old house. The note was still pinned to the laundry room door but it was not readable by the dim light of the stairway light fixture, far above.
Both machines were quiet, the lid of the washer lazily left open. Her two laundry baskets stood by the back door, unmolested. She started the washer filling and added the soap. She was just about to start transferring the dirty clothes in when she heard a door creak- the stairwell door with the note on it.
It was the old woman. She looked even more ancient and shrivelled than Sherry had remembered. The old woman was wearing a matted blue bathrobe, with a brown stain on one arm.
“I’m sorry.” Sherry chirped. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
The old woman didn’t say anything; she just closed the door again. Shelly shrugged and stuffed clothes into the washer. When it was full she closed the lid and stood there. She was debating whether she should stay awake to feed the drier when something moving in the back yard caught her eye. It was quite big, definitely not a rabbit. It might have been a deer, Sherry thought. Poor little deer, how did you get lost in the city? The back door had five locks on it. Two sliding bolts, a chain and two twist and turn locks. She undid them all and shoved the reluctant door open. The cold wintery night air was fresh and crisp and stinging. She took a few tender steps into the snow. It was deeper than she thought it would be and she was just in her slippers. The icy snow stung her ankles. She was just about to turn back when she saw the footprints- small human bare feet prints. A wave of compassion washed over her, momentarily chasing away the winter chill. Some poor little kid- a homeless, freezing child, was stuck out here, trying to stay alive in the worst winter in ten years.
“Hello?” Sherry called out into the cold dark. “I won’t hurt you.” She thought she heard some rustling- there was some kind of an evergreen bush topped with snow and it seemed there was something in it. “I can help you.”
She shuddered when the child appeared, for half of its face had been mauled, perhaps by a dog or other animal. It was just a little girl, perhaps five or six years-old, wispy blond hair and barefoot in a white nightgown except blood from the mauling had stained one side from white to dried blood burgundy rust.
“You’re hurt,” Sherry said, and reached out for her.
The little girl’s eyes were all glassy and empty. Probably in shock, Sherry decided. But the pale little hand came up and grasped hers.
“We’re going to go inside to warm up and have some food and so I can look at your injury.”
Sherry led the girl in by the hand. The poor thing seemed to weigh almost nothing. She followed obediently up the steep back stairs and into Sherry’s cozy apartment. The little girl just stood there while her rescuer ran around collecting blankets, bandages and towels.
“Come sit beside me,” Sherry said, once she’d made a kind of warm nest on the couch.
The little girl climbed up and looked at her with her vacant blue eyes. Sherry shuddered involuntarily- the injury was severe, and parts of the girl’s whitish skull shone through in spots.
“I think I’d better call an ambulance.” Sherry said, but when she went to get up, the little girl grabbed her into a fierce hug and wouldn’t let go.
“It’s okay, you’re safe now.” She told the little girl, hugging back.
When she looked down, the wound seemed a little bit better. Sherry shook her head- were her eyes playing tricks on her? The wound was closing, the skin regrowing, the scabs withering and crumbling to dust exposing fresh pink new skin beneath. The girl looked up at her and her eyes were bright and full of life and she smiled.
It was then that Sherry noticed the horrible claw like hand on the girl’s head- and realized it was her own. She staggered back, her body withered and ancient, and clawed her way over to the mirror. She was a husk of her former self. She was thin and wrinkled and looked like she was a hundred years old. But the little girl did not let her rest. She took the shrivelled thing that had been Sherry by the hand and carefully led her down the steep stairs to the old woman’s apartment. The old woman, it seemed, had been waiting and opened the door for them. The little girl deposited Sherry into a chair and then skipped over to the door.
“I’m going outside to play,” the child sang cheerfully, and went out.
The old woman closed the door and locked it. Three other ancient and withered women shuffled in and stood staring at their newest sister.
“Welcome,” The first said. “You’re one of us now.”
“Get out of my chair,” rasped the second.
The third woman was crying.
The fourth one was shaking her head. “You shouldn’t have let the little girl in.”