The old women’s skin was dry as cigarette ash and yet their eyes glowed like rolling ocean waves. When they spoke they whispered, but this was rare. They preferred silence. As they moved from street to street, fighting against the slanted rain in woollen trench coats and bucket hats, dogs snarled at them through wrought iron gates.
They lived on the streets, under polluted skies, and when they slept it was with their eyes open, standing like guards protecting ancient remains.
In a housing estate on the edge of town, the old women lurked in a stairwell picking at their bloody cuticles, waiting. And then when they sensed the presence of a lonely child on the rooftop, they dragged themselves up the steps like wounded animals.
The women moved in formation and swarmed around a boy who was leaning into the wind, relishing the sight of the vibrant city. The women pawed at his cheeks and bare arms as his energy was drained from his body. He turned pale, and as his lungs filled with blood, he fell to his knees.
Energised by their conquest, the women were consumed by childhood memories. They recalled the sun as it gleamed through hospital windows just after they were born, and the time they first saw their mirror image – lively figures, full of hope. But this was the past. Now their bodies were failing, sickly and frail, so every other thought was of the grave. They trekked from one cemetery to the next, sat on the earth beside tombstones, and dreamed of being buried alongside forgotten souls. Sometimes in an effort to end it all they starved themselves of children’s energy, strangled each other with extension cords, or suffocated each other with shopping bags. But death still eluded them.
Most people ignored the women with their matted hair dangling over their vacant faces, their torn stockings, their stench of fish guts. But there was one teenage girl, with a delicate withered hand, and a penetrating mind, who was spellbound by the women. She’d seen them in the park near her building, capturing a child and sweeping him into the shadows, and she had to know more. So, with every free moment she followed the women around town skulking in the shadows, shielding her weak hand from the frosty weather.
The teen was friendless and spent longs hours alone in her room playing chess online, eating ramen noodles, feeding her dog soft boiled eggs.
One day she saw the women huddled together beneath an overpass feeding each other stale bread and taking turns to hyperventilate.
The teen became tearful, wanted to stop the suffering, but when she saw the women pull out a blunt razor-blade and take turns to slash their own wrists, she realised they weren’t to be pitied – they were just monsters trapped in their own bodies.
In a park on a winter’s day, the trees crooked and frail, the old women had found a three-year-old girl – no parents in sight – and they salivated at the thought of grabbing her in a cruel embrace, hoping to be sustained by the child’s purity until they could find a way to kill themselves once and for all. That’s when the teenage girl intervened. She erupted into a horrendous cry, scaring away the child and the sparrows pecking away by the lake.“I’ve seen you feed off the weak, set each other on fire, and pray to be struck by lightning in stormy weather. God knows why, but you leave a trail of destruction wherever you go. How can you live with yourselves?”
The women were shocked and took a second to respond. Then after spine-tingling sighs they said, “All we crave is freedom from this world, and we’re not ashamed of what we do.Everything is suffering and we’ll find comfort wherever we can, be it through the force of children, or the promise of suicide.”
Strangely moved, grief spread through the girl’s body like electricity, and then it hit her: one day she would end up like these women – desperate for the warmth of a noose around her neck, with the urge to die, even craving the essence of a child.
She fingered her bulging veins that lined her withered hand, felt the pulse in her neck, and then as the movements of her chest became shallow and slow, she realised old age, and her own demise, were nearer than she could ever imagine.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, The Metaworker, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere.