Claudia stood at the entrance of the big house and stared at the dark red curtains along the great staircase in front of her. Aside from a few candles on the handrails, there was not much light, and in some ways, the shadows seemed bigger because of the tiny flames.
Claudia sniffed and swallowed.
She turned her head to the front door, but when she saw a bit of light from under a door above the stairs, she was drawn to it.
Forgetting her fear, Claudia stepped onto the stairs. Her eyes watched her feet, and she saw her pink pajama pants and fuzzy bunny slippers move up the stairs.
She was dizzy when she reached halfway. She thought she heard whispers, but she didn’t know where
they came from.
Wind blew in the room, and she stopped as she shook the cold away. The candles blew out. She was in darkness.”Don’t go!” she thought she heard.
Claudia shook her head and looked back down the stairs. Vertigo overwhelmed her, and she swayed towards the bottom.
The sound of someone singing brought her back to reality, and she looked back at the light. It called to her, and she imagined how warm and bright it must be inside.
Claudia ran up the remaining stairs, or at least as much as her tiny legs would let her, and placed her hand on the doorknob.
Whispers from every direction screamed, “No!”, but it was too late. The knob turned, and the door burst open. Light flooded her entire body, and in an instant, she felt warm and happy.
At first all she could see was the bright light. She stepped forward, and the door slammed behind her. She jumped and yelped her terror.
She heard a giggle as a response, and somehow, Claudia’s fear abated.
She thought she knew that voice.
“Are you going to play with me today, Claudia?” she heard.
Claudia rubbed her eyes.
“Gerdy,” she said with a yawn.
She blinked, and for a second, she thought she looked like an old woman, but the image was gone as soon as it came.
Gertrude was surrounded on three sides by dolls and dresses. On the far side of the room, there was a rocking horse and a doll carriage. A table and tea set was in the middle of the room.
Her eyes had focused on Gertrude’s, and with a big grin, she skipped to the corner with her. “Of course!”
She sat down across from the toddler.
Claudia picked up a doll and started to dress it up for the tea party. They always played tea party first.
Playtime went on for hours, as it had three other nights this week.
Tonight, though, Claudia felt an urge. Every moment she looked at Gertrude, she was compelled to say something, but she pushed the thought away. She was being silly. But after an awesome game of chutes and ladders, she just blurted it out. “I never want to leave your side!”
Gertrude’s grin stretched from ear-to-ear, and her eyes grew wide with excitement. A hiss swelled in Claudia’s head.
She felt something in her throat and coughed.
Gertrude laughed, but the sound of it was husky.
The room spun. Claudia’s chest tightened, and she felt like fire burned her from the inside pulling out her heart.
“I’ve waited for so long to hear you say that,” Gertrude said.
Gertrude grabbed Claudia’s hand. Only it was an old woman’s hand. She pulled to escape the embrace, but inside she was being ripped away. She couldn’t see anything on the corners of her eyes. It was like she was in a tunnel, and her mind was being pulled out of her body.
She realized it was. She was outside her body now, and she watched as her hand tightened around Gertrude’s. She heard her voice laugh, but she had not done it.
“You never have to leave again,” Gertrude cackled.
Her tiny child-like body hugged the old lady. Gertrude’s withered form started to change shape. Her wrinkles less pronounced.
Claudia’s mind was still drifting further away. She was dragged down the stairs and out through the front door.
As her eyes filled with darkness, she thought for a moment she saw herself standing in the doorway waving goodbye with one hand and holding a young woman’s hand with the other.
As the darkness took her, the husky laugh echoed all around her. “Thanks for your youth.”