The mill lodge’s surface was thick black with oil and filth of yesteryear. Its abuser, a red brick cotton mill, long ago demolished to make way for grey towers that loomed over the weir and its patch work of gangly, anorexic trees. Contemporary detritus had found a watery grave courtesy of the human inhabitants of the towers, steel trolleys and crisp packets sinking and floating respectively in a bleak abyss that had forgotten all life that it once incubated. All except one. One seemingly constant force that had been the mill pond’s resident since before even the mill’s birth. A simpler time when the waterway followed ancient ley lines to a greater lake long since desiccated; leaving it trapped in this shallow prison for four hundred years.
In the past she had many names, each one having evolved into legend and folklore, each a variation on a theme of children keeping away from the water’s edge. For the most part the stories’ graphic content seemed to work but there were always one or two younglings that would wander too far, out of bravado or curiosity, to the edge of their known world. Over the years she had noted how the bravery and stupidity of humans skated a fine line and that children seemed inherently prone to both attributes. Waltzing jovially into her watery embrace, unknowingly of course until the last moment. Never seeing her glide under the still waters without making a ripple. Black shark eyes absorbing every movement above the water until, in an explosion of sound she would berth, clasping her leathery reed-encumbered arms around her prey and pulling them effortlessly below. Families would search, siblings would scream, mothers would weep. So it was for centuries that the children of the upper world would become unwilling food for the preternatural. It was a gruesome system but a system none the less. Then the industrial revolution conquered the minds of man and development slowly began to leak its influence into the world. The pond became a functional device for a red keep of steam and smog, the inhabitants of the town growing in number and brood, encroaching ever closer to her domain. With five or six litters per homestead, it was expected that some could not return from their labour at the mill, their unwilling sacrifice keeping her belly full. These golden days were short lived however, a century of feasting slowing down to feeds twice or so a week. But her appetite was a patient one, being able to go weeks without food like a snake or a scorpion in torpor. Still they would come, alone or in cavorting pairs; the missing posters of yesterday littering the park with saturnine confetti that they failed to take heed of. So it was that times changed and thus she changed with them. The world adapted and she in turn adapted her hunt. But in the early days of the 21st century the distance between meals began to extend. Days became weeks and weeks followed months. Her skin began to sag from her hollow bones, her lurid green pallor turning that of a chalk grey and her hair, thick and greasy with algae and bird shit would come out in clumps in her hands. In the dark evenings she would see her prey walk past noting that all were illuminated by lamps that they stared at devotedly, miniature reflecting pools that linked them to their peers via an invisible arcane web. She watched nightly as they prayed, cried and laughed with this trinket that meant the world to them. That was the world to them. Indeed it was as if their very soul had been caged and which they now carried upon their person as opposed to within themselves. It dawned on her then that this device would be the key to her feeding once more in abundance.
Her first attempts were crude. Deep under the pool itself a watery grotto lay protected by an air pocket in which she displayed for reasons unknown even to her, the items she had pried from the small clammy hands of her past meals. Wooden tops, playing cards and the mouldy remainders of dolls, all she tried as lures for the children of tomorrow. Waiting patiently in the shallows to pounce. But no one noticed, except for a hermit in reflective yellow wares that picked up the items with a cane ending in steel pincers. Giving them a cursory glance before discarding them into his barrow, filled with litter and filth collected in the vicinity. Failure pinched her hard in the stomach and she screamed under the water, sending shock waves through the still pool. Forced to conserve her energy she watched with vacant eyes as food came and went constantly, ever enticing but ever out of reach. Eyes narrowing to pinpoints one time when a child ventured toward the bank, the saliva in her mouth floating thickly through the surrounding water. But it was a false promise. The boy never got close enough for an assault, merely close enough to pour the contents of his large satchel into the water, around a hundred or so pamphlets in a language she could not understand. Chewing on them fooled her hunger for a time but merely for a moment or two before the pain would return as demanding for attention as ever. A garland of barbed thorns tumbling in her abdomen. Then finally it happened and without the need of energy on her part. A commotion woke her and so she slipped to the surface and saw a group of children, four in total circling a fifth like wild dogs, pushing and shoving and yapping as the runt cowered in the middle. Each held their lanterns aloft, keeping their focus on their victim. She pondered on this ceremony but only briefly as suddenly the runt’s lantern was snatched from his hand and tossed mercilessly into the pond. As the pack slunk into the darkness the runt was left to retrieve his trinket. Slowly he undressed to his undergarment before stepping lightly with each foot into the polluted quagmire before him. Her eyes, wide as the moon now, as dark and deep as wells, focused solely on the young animal swimming through the mirk, mirroring his every move a few feet below him, hidden in the reeds and darkness. She felt her muscles start to tense in her shoulders and legs, her teeth clenching and grinding in anticipation. The birds had become silent in the dead trees around her and even the boy himself stopped to take note of the charge in the air. A feeling unfamiliar to him and all too distant for her, making it all the more exciting to relive. The boy attempted to swim again, his head peering into the depths for his trinket but its stroke was delayed by what he thought were reeds tangling his feet. He panicked and kicked out to break himself free but it was of no use as it was not reeds that held him but she and when he turned to look behind him he saw her withered face slowly break the surface. His blood turned to ice and he gasped a lungful of the black tar waters of the millpond before she pulled him deep below.
She kept him alive for a time, despite her hunger and the child’s screams. Alive for enough time to learn what the trinket was used for and why each child seemed so besotted with it. Slowly she understood and in her understanding marveled at how fortuitous an item this device would be. To think she could communicate with her prey from the luxury of her grotto and lure them without very much effort at all. She stared at the whimpering one before her and considered to keep it for further insight. But her hunger exploded inside her, leaving her clawing at her belly and so voraciously she consumed him, using its bones to pick sinew from her teeth. A pair of thick spectacles, chipped and blood splattered now took a space on her rock mantel piece. A week or so went by while she allowed herself the luxury of contentment at a full stomach before focusing on the task ahead. Her webbed digits prodded at the device, clumsily browsing her way to a chatroom. A barrage of letters and images flailed past the screen in quick succession and each attempt at entering this maelstrom of communication was knocked to the side-line unnoticed. Eventually after her fiftieth greeting another responded but it was merely to chide her for her odd use of English. Others joined in and, fearing they may somehow locate her, she switched the device off before throwing it to the corner of her lair. Curling into herself she looked over at the rags and bloodied bones of her last meal before cursing her own impatience. Two new moons came and went and still she ensnared nothing, the child that melted in her gut now a distant memory. Pawing at the device sloppily she began to accept her grim lingering fate. Four centuries had come and gone so fast, had she known that it would end so cruelly she would have savoured the moments more. Truly an eternity was still not enough time to indulge in the simple primeval pleasures she excelled in. Her eyes blinked wet reptilian blinks before closing, reopening slowly at the sound of the device murmuring at her. She slithered over to peer into its face and found there waiting a message, private from the forum itself so that only she could read it.
“You’ve gone quiet… I think you’re shy. Like me.” She froze on reading it as if a fish were at the end of a hook in front of her. Rifling through a soiled dictionary she concocted a sentence back.
“YES. I AM SHY.” She sent the message and waited, open mouthed and shallow of breath. The words she wrote felt like chicken bone in her throat, sharp and unnatural and for a moment she worried that she had snapped the hook.
“I’m James…What’s Your Name?” She breathed out and responded instantly.
“JENNY “, she said, her lips curling into a smile. The private messages continued, each placing a stepping stone of trust between her and James, a boy of thirteen who lived a few towns over. He said he had noticed how the other children in the forum had made fun of her or ignored her and felt it was wrong somehow, having been through similar ostracisation himself. She placated his empathy with thanks, adding that she too was thirteen and was learning English as a foreign language. When asked where she originally came from she thought of her long dead ancestors and of Great Moravia and Russia and when the former created confusion she deferred to the latter which seemed to excite him.
“Russians have sexy accents!” he said and she shuddered before typing an agreement.
“I WOULD LIKE YOU HEAR MY ACCENT” A delay followed that bit into her brain with panic and then.
“…soo when can I see you in person to hear it ;)?” The trap set she typed furiously, her composure lost to desire.
“I sneak ot, no dad catch me. by MILlpond 12am tonit.” A second ground slowly through its brief existence, enough time to make her impatient. “PLEASE!” she keyed again then saw that James was typing and waited for confirmation, but as the message came through the fine tendrils of her web seemed to snap suddenly as the screen of the device switched off completely. She scrambled to switch it on again and it did so but only briefly to show a red symbol belonging to some alchemy codex she had never encountered. She wailed inconsolably, shoving the device into her mouth and chomping down on it till it buckled and split. The pieces drooled out of her to the ground and she pushed down on them hard so that they sunk into the damp sod of the grotto. Something didn’t feel right in her mouth; a loose lump, hard and chalk like. She delved her fingers in and pulled out a large yellow tooth caked in fresh blood. She knew then that she was dying.
She lay belly up that night on the bones of her last kill, its white leather trainers somehow finding themselves imprisoned in its rib cage. The time had come and gone for James to meet her and she yearned dearly as to know how he would have tasted, if he was fat or thin, succulent or tender. The thought alone tormented her to the point of distraction, to the point that had she not come to her senses she would have missed the ripples in the water. Not heard the splash of skimmed stones finding their chthonic resting place in the pool. Not heard the hushed whispers dancing in the wind. “Jenny?” they said and she bolted up right on hearing them, “Where are you Jenny?” This was her last chance at survival, her hope at enduring a few more months. Without thought she dived into the water from her grotto and sailed toward James under the dark oil of the millpond, the echo of his voice reverberating across the dead water above. Her eyesight fading from starvation she could still make out a figure on the bank, the source of the whispers. Though she could make out only an impression it was enough to know he would make for a great, fatty meal. The eruption of water woke the birds from the trees as she lunged at James, dragging him screaming into the void. He struggled, and at times managed to slip from her grasp where before no child had. This worried her greatly, she was clearly frailer than she had realised so she gripped tighter. Tight enough to hear him wince in pain, tight enough to hear bone crack. Hunched and exhausted she pulled James writhing into the grotto who spluttered and swore violent profanities at his predicament until he turned to face her. Then his profanities turned to holy words, words of pleading and forgiveness. Of tearful abandon and penitence. Something did not seem right about this child, he seemed tall and stocky for one so young. But her stomach cut her with razors still so she mounted the cowering James and began to consume him head first. Her Jaw dislocating and extending it enveloped slowly over James’ forehead, covering his eyes and slipping further down to his hyperventilating mouth. But as her tongue licked at the scalp of her prey something unexpected happened. A shudder, small at first but growing larger and larger in her body until she convulsed and choked on her meal, bringing sprunting bile as she regurgitated James whole. She understood now that James was not palatable to her. Not in the slightest. She looked him up and down, unshaved and potbellied, with wrinkled sun-baked skin dotted with worn tattoos. James was no thirteen year old. He was a man, a cowering, fatty, putrid adult that due to his age and taste offered no sustenance for her whatsoever but whom in the struggle had stolen her last ounce of vitality. What reason had he, she wondered, to masquerade as boy, sensing that he was no fey creature such as her? She contemplated asking him, but his presence sickened her as did his smell and she saw he had soiled his light grey jogging bottoms. Instead she curled into the corner of her home and waited patiently for death, a fate they would both share sooner or later turning only once when the adult tried to converse with her, to plead for his life. But she screamed a deep shrill bellow that in turn made him scream also. She then turned away and faced him no more, closing her eyes for the long sleep’s welcome embrace. Perhaps her kind’s time was at an end, she thought. Perhaps now there were too many monsters to compete with.