The little old lady who lived down the block
The little old lady who lived down the block would sit at her window, sipping earl grey tea and watching the neighborhood kids play on the sidewalk just outside her house and across the street. This was before anyone thought twice about random people observing children who weren’t theirs, and even after some local parents saw a slew of news stories about kidnappings and disappearances they mostly ignored the little old lady because she was a little old lady. She exuded a sort of warmth all her neighbors assumed only little old ladies who lived down the block could exude, and because of that she was taken to be kind and gentle even though she had never really exhibited those traits. She never greeted the neighbors who walked past her house, never smiled at anyone she saw. If anyone had seen her in town they would have surely tried to make conversation, to ask how long she had lived in that house or if she had any family to look after her. But as far as everyone was concerned, she could only ever exist within that house.
There was a lot about the house that should have raised eyebrows, though most of its stranger features were subtle enough that anyone who noticed them shrugged them off as quaint. It was an old one-story Dutch Colonial with an oddly jagged roof that made it look sort of like a ziggurat and a front garden that was always slightly overgrown in a way that people found charming. There was a birdbath there that puzzled the neighbors because it was made out of what looked like limestone and never had any water in it.
Most people who walked past the house ignored the little old lady entirely, even though she would often be staring right at them from behind her window. Joggers, dogwalkers, wandering souls — they all tended to be lost in their own worlds, unconcerned with the minutia of the suburb. Occasionally the more attentive people in the neighborhood noticed that little old face behind the glass; it startled some but left most unperturbed. A few eagle-eyed pedestrians could even see the little old lady’s lips moving as she mumbled to herself. Most assumed she was senile, but those curious enough to try to make out what she was saying came away with a more interesting revelation: she was reciting the text from old books entirely from memory. That is, apart from one occasion, on which a confused young man claimed he heard her repeating the same word (an apparently foreign word he couldn’t remember) over and over again.
But the little old lady who lived down the block may have lived a fuller life than anyone realized. She often had packages delivered to her house, and though no one ever saw her opening the door and retrieving them, they never remained on her doorstep for long. Loud music could often be heard coming from the general direction of her home, though no one who heard it ever thought it could be the little old lady listening to it. New plants would appear in her garden and the color of the house would regularly change. And, on occasion, she had guests over.
Whenever the neighborhood kids were playing up and down that block, at least one would end up meeting the gaze of the little old lady. While the others were distracted, that child would become transfixed and unable to do anything apart from stare back at her for at least a minute, then start walking toward her house with an almost euphoric intent. The child would enter the house and immediately notice a bowl of hard candy, the likes of which could be found in the home of any little old lady on any block. But what was different about this particular bowl of hard candy was the candy: it came in five varieties whose colors were bright like neon (apart from one), and if the surviving children’s descriptions are to be believed, they tasted like no other candy on Earth.
The red ones tasted of molten rock from an unknown planet; the green ones tasted of a poisonous fungus found only in a part of the Amazon rainforest intentionally hidden from outsiders by an illusory curtain; the yellow ones tasted of pure decadence; the pink ones tasted of a vague memory that would fill you with a primal terror beyond comprehension; and the black ones tasted of time going in reverse. All of these descriptions were spoken word for word by children who came out of the little old lady’s house.
But even more inexplicable than these absurd flavors was the effect the candies would have on the children who ate them. Todd Smith, who ate the red candy, expressed a desire to leave Earth as soon as possible. The therapist he was taken to told him he could become an astronaut when he got older, but he insisted that would take too long. He disappeared some weeks later and was never found.
Valerie Chen, who are the green candy, exhibited a case of what could only be described as chronic vomiting. The vomit began as normal, but after everything in her digestive tract had been expelled, she began throwing up a bright green substance. This continued until she disappeared some weeks later. She, too, was never found.
Orson Keller, who ate the yellow candy, began speaking with unusual eloquence and dressing in outfits made of clothes without labels that no one had bought for him. These outfits became more and more elaborate until one day he came to school completely naked with his body painted to look like a harlequin. He then began to exhibit sexually aggressive behavior which resulted in him being sent to a juvenile detention facility. It is unknown what happened to him after that.
Maya Mendez, who ate the pink candy, was gripped by fear and would not stop weeping for several days. Then one morning, when her mother came into her room to check on her, she found Maya sitting on her bed, mouth agape, seemingly staring if not for the fact that her eyes were gone. A pink goo, roughly the consistency of toothpaste, oozed out of the empty sockets. Despite this, Maya lived for another twelve years in a state of catatonia.
Damon Brown, who ate the black candy, went into a five-month coma during which his irises turned pitch black and slowly dilated until they overtook the whites of his eyes. When he awoke, he claimed to have witnessed the creation of the universe, which he described as an unholy symphony. He died the next day, of uncertain cause.
Many more children simply disappeared without explanation.
For whatever reason, no one in the neighborhood grew suspicious of the little old lady who lived down the block, despite the fact that the children who ate from her candy bowl spoke plainly about doing so. Perhaps it was because she used some otherworldly powers to make people forget about what she had done. Or perhaps it was because the truth of what was happening to these children was so incredible that no one could in fact believe it. Or perhaps it was simply because adults tend not to take what children say completely seriously, and any warnings they might have gotten were brushed off as soon as they were heard. No matter the reason, the little old lady continued in her efforts (if they could be called that) unimpeded. She observed generation after generation, and took what she would from each.
One summer evening, a young woman named Paula, fresh out of college and returning to her hometown, went for a walk around the neighborhood. She looked around, noticing all the things she had missed when she was too busy thinking about being somewhere else. She had grown up in this little city but never really felt at home there. Even now it didn’t feel like she was returning anywhere, just that she had traveled from one unfamiliar location to another. She wished she could be more nostalgic. Instead she lamented lost time.
It was an unexpectedly hot day, and though the evening breeze had cooled the area down a bit, she still found herself getting very thirsty. She stopped to catch her breath and noticed, perhaps for the first time despite having lived on this block since childhood, an odd-looking birdbath filled with what looked like the most refreshing, crystal-clear water she had ever seen. She approached it. She took some of the water in her hands and splashed it on her face. Then, against her better judgement, she drank some. She immediately regretted it.
The first thing she noticed as she looked up from the birdbath was the sky turning a deep shade of red. Then she looked down and saw that she was no longer in her old neighborhood. Or rather, the neighborhood had changed. The house with the birdbath was still there, but around it was a dry grassland, made up of weeds several feet high. They gave off a smell like old, burnt bodies left to be devoured by birds. Some things Paula couldn’t quite see were crawling along the ground.
She closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them again she would be back in a world she recognized. She had no such luck.
She walked through the dense brush for some time until she found a clearing amid which knelt a small figure covered in black cloth. Paula watched it for a moment; it was silently shivering. She gently approached the figure until she was a foot or so away from it, at which point it seemed to sense her and turned around, making its face visible. It had a head like a bird’s, with tiny eyes and a beak-like protrusion emerging from the center, but it had no hair or feathers, and its skin looked human. Its mouth, if it had one, was either permanently closed or hidden. What could be seen of its body revealed it to be a scrawny little thing without limbs. Its eyes looked straight into Paula’s with what she knew was an unfathomable sadness. Then she began to hear a voice, murmuring, faintly at first but growing louder by the second. It was trying to communicate with her.
Please, take me out of this place. Use the sacred word. I have been here for as long as I can remember. Use the sacred word. I have been without food, without water, without joy, but it will not let me die. Use the sacred word. All I have known has been suffering, and emptiness, and hope, and you are my hope, and you must help me. Use the sacred word. I was once like you, like anyone, I lived a normal life and was happy, but soon all good things end and are replaced by nothing, but this is worse than nothing, you see? Use the sacred word. I had given up long ago on anyone coming to find me, to take me home, or anywhere else but here, but now you are here and you can save me from this world, please won’t you? Use the sacred word. I am nothing now, less than a husk, but I am forced to stay here with my thoughts, thoughts that no longer mean anything because there is nothing to stimulate them, only sadness and fear and memories that are all but lost. Use the sacred word. Please help me, please help me, please help me. Use the sacred word. Why are you just standing there, you’ve been standing there for a century, two centuries, three centuries, you’ve done nothing but stand there. Use the sacred word. You are my only memory, you are my everything, you are nothing. Use the sacred word. Do it. Use the sacred word. Use the sacred word. USE THE SACRED WORD.
But Paula didn’t know the sacred word.
Once she was able to find her bearings, she thought about how much she pitied this poor thing, probably more than she had ever pitied anything before. She couldn’t imagine what it was or why it was here, or what here was. But she knew misery when she saw it. And this thing had to be put down.
As soon as Paula had that thought, the creature began to screech. She covered her ears, but it was no use; the screeching was coming from inside her head. She moved closer to the creature and it stumbled back, then fell over. She stood astride it and watched as it squirmed and its eyes began to water. Her pity almost instantly turned into hatred. And she felt that hatred come out of her in the form a white hot flaming dagger which she plunged into the creature’s heart.
But rather than dying, it grew in size and its screams became louder. Its beak began to grow and turned into a sort of proboscis that grabbed Paula and wrapped itself around her neck. She felt herself asphyxiating. She tried to scream but could only gasp. Everything went black.
Then everything went white.
The next thing she knew, Paula was lying on the sidewalk in the dead of night. The sky was black and full of stars. She held her hand out in front of her to make sure she was still herself, and apart from one strange thing (her fingernails had been painted red, green, yellow, pink and black without her knowledge), it was her own hand. She stood up and was immediately light-headed. Her vision adjusted and she looked around, noticing the house with the birdbath in front of her. She remembered taking a drink out of it. She had no idea why she would do such a thing. The heat must have been frying her brain. She walked home and went to bed. She told a few people what happened, then moved away and never returned to her hometown again.
Some time later, everyone in that neighborhood simultaneously realized that the house with the birdbath had been abandoned. No one remembered anyone living there, but when the property was inspected it was found to have two notable qualities: it smelled terrible and was filled with centipedes. It was condemned immediately and torn down.
Years passed, and nothing was built in its place, the plot instead becoming a vacant lot where neighborhood children would often play. All anyone remembered about the house that used to be there was that it was occupied by a little old lady who suffered from dementia, whose children eventually forced her to move to an assisted living facility. She died and the children were unable to sell the house, and it was destroyed. The weeds grew and the dirt accumulated, and the little old lady was forgotten. Though she had likely been forgotten long before her death.
The neighborhood where the little old lady’s house had been had become known for mysterious disappearances, and it wasn’t long before most of the residents moved on to greener pastures. It became impossible to sell real estate in that area, so the land became used for public housing projects, and when those were unsuccessful, it was simply abandoned altogether. Then the surrounding neighborhoods were similarly left behind and the whole city became a ghost town.
Decades passed, and there was no one left alive who remembered what that city had been called. It became a wasteland, barren and dry; even the weeds abandoned it. The only thing that grew within a five mile radius was a single pillar of limestone, jutting out of the ground in the area’s exact center and reaching beyond the clouds.
At the very top of the pillar, a single word was carved into the stone.