She answered the door promptly: the pretty woman from the ad. She had the same blonde hair, the dark green eyes. She wore a black lace sweater and looked 21.
“Yes?” Her voice was old, raspy, not like her face at all. But that could be from cigarettes. If she’d been smoking since she was four.
“I’m doing a story for the Huffington Post,” he said. “Your agency said I could talk to you.” The last part was a lie. The hardest work of the story so far had been tracking down this woman. Before his sister had vanished, he’d dreamed of being an investigative reporter. Instead he was doing freelance work, trying to forget her.
“How charming,” she said. “Do come in.”
He’d expected resistance. He’d had doors slammed in his face before. But she led him into her living room. It was an oddly decorated cottage in New England. GPS couldn’t find it, and her frost-laced windows looked out on dense forest. Her furniture was old and rustic, with a handmade rag rug in the center of the wood floor. Over a dozen candles lit the room. They looked handmade, too, like beef tallow candles from a colonial reconstruction village. Each had a tanned sheepskin shade with delicately inked designs.
“You must like shopping for antiques,” he said.
“I’ve had them for years.”
“Years… How many have you lived in this house? 69?” He said it lightly, a joke. This woman couldn’t possibly be that old. There wasn’t a line on her face, and Botox had nothing to do with it.
“Longer than that. Won’t you sit down?”
He chose an oak straight chair and she settled into a rocking chair. Taking out his phone, he zoomed a saved webpage that showed one of her ads: ‘Use this one weird trick that doctors don’t want you to know.’ He handed her the phone to see. “Nice picture of you,” he remarked.
“Do you really think so?” She sounded flattered, but every time she spoke, that mismatch of voice and face jarred him. Her words creaked like her rocking chair.
“I don’t suppose I could see your driver’s license,” he said. “You probably get carded every time you walk into a bar.”
“Oh, I don’t drive those newfangled things.”
This actress pretending to be as old as her own grandmother had excuses as unbelievable as the ads. But her history went way back. The skin care company could have used anyone, even stock photos. Yet he’d found photos on the internet that went back decades, back to the days of AOL and CompuServe. He’d seen photos of this woman in the Arpanet archives: faded Polaroids from monochrome monitors. And before that, advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. Maybe her face went back to engravings in Poor Richard’s Almanack.
“Would you like a sweet?” she said, holding out a plate.
“You must like to cook.” He chose a gingerbread cookie, noticing her smooth unblemished fingers.
She set the plate on the oak table beside him. Next to the plate, the sputtering candle had a sheepskin shade with a mermaid inked on it. A name faded with age was written sideways by the mermaid’s tail: Hester. An old-fashioned name like his sister’s.
“Where’d you buy the lampshade?” he asked.
“I made it.”
Candle flames glowed yellow through lampshades on tables and shelves lining the walls. Each design was unique. There were anchors and tigers and snakes. Some had names or quotations. He saw one with a detailed Harley Davidson logo.
“Interesting hobby,” he said. “Some women crochet.”
“I have many skills. Some the world has forgotten.”
“And the one weird trick that doctors don’t want us to know? That’s not the trick you use, is it?”
She shook her head, smiling. “I’ll show you.”
She rose from her rocking chair and led him to the stairway at the side of the room. The worn wooden steps creaked as he followed her up.
The upper floor was a single gabled room, its ceiling slanted at both ends because of the roof. The only light came from two small windows on either side. By the stairs lay a bed with a black quilt. There was a stone fireplace at the far end of the room, with a low fire burning in it.
“Is this where you sleep?”
“I do many things here.”
He’d expected a model to have her photos on the walls, modeling magazines on the bed. And clothes, lots of clothes. Here there was no closet, no dresser, no vanity table.
“You don’t use much make-up, do you? Not like most women your age.”
“How old do you think I am?” That voice made her sound over a hundred.
“Barely old enough to drink,” he answered.
He looked at the fireplace. It was larger than one in a normal house, more like a colonial kitchen, with a huge kettle and wrought iron implements. A memory stirred of an old kitchen with his sister, years ago. Then he felt a hand on his, gently tugging him toward the bed.
“Let me show you my secret,” she whispered.
She pulled her sweater over her head. A fine chain dangled between her perfect breasts, and from it, a twisted sugar cane, red and white. He stared at it hypnotically as she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her breasts against his shirt.
“I don’t think we should…” he stammered, trying to pull free.
She had his arms pinned tightly to his sides. He was strong, but she was far stronger. She lifted him off the floor, turning back toward the fireplace.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Hansel,” she croaked.
George S. Walker is an engineer working in Portland, Oregon. He has sold stories to Ideomancer, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Stupefying Stories, Perihelion SF, Steampunk Tales, Comets and Criminals, and elsewhere. Paperback anthologies containing his stories include Bibliotheca Fantastica, Mirror Shards, Gears and Levers, and Heir Apparent.