The car came to a stop in the driveway and Kathy woke with a jolt. “Home sweet home,” Ed said and she gave a sleepy smile. Air travel always made her tired. As Ed fetched their luggage from the trunk, Kathy opened the visor to check her reflection in the small mirror. She ran her fingers through her thick blonde fringe, then got out to help Ed with the bags. “I’ve got it,” he said, a little breathlessly. So she took the carry-on instead.
From outside the house looked like it belonged to a recluse, with the windows shut and the curtains drawn closed. It was a necessary precaution—there had been a number of break-ins in the neighbourhood and they did not want any possible watchers to see that the house was empty. They further attempted to counter this impression by leaving the living room light on. But the windows were all dark now. Their neighbour Barbara must’ve switched the light off when she came to feed the cats, thinking it had been left on by mistake.
Inside, the house was unnaturally quiet. It was the kind of silence that seemed to absorb sounds rather than amplify them. Kathy put her bag down at the foot of the stairs with a muffled thump. “Where are my babies?” she asked when no-one came to greet them.
“They’re probably avoiding us. You know how cats get when you go away—they sulk for days.”
There was no sign of them in the living room, so Kathy checked the kitchen. The house felt familiar and strange at the same time, as though it had been broken down and reassembled with tiny imperfections. In the kitchen, two used tea bags had been left in a saucer by the kettle.
Someone has been here while we were way, Kathy thought. She told Ed about the tea bags, but he dismissed her concern.
“It was probably just Barbara. Don’t be paranoid, honey.”
Kathy knew that this was likely true, yet she could not shake the feeling that someone else had been inside the house. Before going to sleep, she checked the contents of her jewellery box. Everything was there: the golden chain from her grandfather’s pocket watch, the diamond earrings Ed gave her for their tenth anniversary, her father’s cufflinks and her grandmother’s pearls. Feeling a little reassured, she turned off the light and got into bed.
The next day Barbara came to return their keys. “Morning, stranger,” she greeted Kathy. “You’re looking lovely and tan.”
“Thanks, Barb. And thank you for looking after our babies.” The cats had shown up for breakfast that morning. However, as soon as their bowls were empty, they disappeared back out the kitchen door.
“What are neighbours for? How was the Cayman’s?”
“Absolutely divine. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea? I haven’t downloaded the pictures yet, but we can look on the camera?”
“Sure,” Barbara agreed. After all, what was the point of an expensive holiday if you couldn’t boast about it to your friends?
When the tea was brewing, Kathy ran upstairs to fetch the camera. But it wasn’t in her carry-on where she had left it. She looked all over the room but eventually had to conclude that it wasn’t there. Perhaps Ed had taken it with him to work to show his colleagues. Yes, that must be it.
“Sorry, Barb, but I can’t find the camera right now.”
“That’s all right. I’ll just wait until you put it up on Facebook.”
“Yes,” Kathy said, cheered by the thought of her friends and acquaintances pining over pictures of long white beaches and Caribbean sunsets.
When Ed came home that night, Kathy confronted him. But he denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the camera. “Look again, honey. It has to be there.”
She found it stashed in an exterior pocket of the bag with her emergency supply of medicine. “I’m telling you, it wasn’t there before…”
That night in bed, Kathy recited her litany of precious items: grandfather’s gold chain, diamond earrings, dad’s cufflinks and grandmother’s pearls, grandfather’s gold chain, diamond earrings, dad’s cufflinks and grandmother’s pearls…
She was about to doze off when she heard it: a strange rasping sound like fingernails on floorboards. “Did you hear that?” she asked Ed.
“Shush,” she said, listening intently.
There was a brief silence and there it was again: “Grrrrrt grrrrrt…” It was coming from the ceiling above them. “What is that?” Kathy sat up and switched the light on.
“It sounds like a mouse… or maybe a rat. Things have probably moved into the attic again. I’ll phone the exterminator tomorrow. He’ll sort it out.”
Comforted by her husband’s assurance, Kathy lay back down. She listened for the noise again but everything was quiet.
The exterminator arrived the following morning in a bright yellow van that was labelled “Pest Control”. Kathy shuddered at the bold signage—now the whole neighbourhood would know about their little problem. The exterminator Gary was a tall man, who wore an overall the same shade of canary yellow as his van.
Kathy watched him vanish up a ladder into the attic with strange sense of apprehension. But it turned out to be nothing.
“I found no signs of rodent activity, ma’am,” Gary said, as he emerged from the trapdoor half an hour later. “Not even a dropping.”
“But how is that possible?” Kathy asked. “We heard them up there.”
Gary shrugged. “Old houses like these often make funny sounds. But I set some traps, just in case. If there is a son of bitch up there, we’ll catch him. Don’t you worry.”
Kathy spent the next few days getting the house back in shape after three weeks of neglect. She washed, dusted, vacuumed, and scrubbed until everything was spotless. The cats continued their anti-social behaviour, only putting in appearances for breakfast and dinner. Their owners tried to buy back their affection with expensive treats, but it was no use.
Since the visit from the exterminator, Kathy had not heard any noises coming from the attic. She kept a wide berth around the trapdoor on the second floor landing, but could not avoid it entirely. One afternoon she was packing towels in the linen closet when she heard it: a sharp metallic snap like the fall of a guillotine. One of the traps in the attic must’ve gone off.
Kathy could not help but feel relieved. No more listening in the dark for the scratch of tiny feet. She wanted to call Ed to tell him they had caught the bastard. But first she needed to make sure. She fetched the ladder from the garage and lined it up beneath the trapdoor. Slowly, she ascended the stairs, careful not to miss a step.
A musty silence hung inside the attic. Small clouds of dust rose from the floorboards as Kathy moved around. She could make out footprints on the floor, probably left by Gary a week earlier. The walls were stacked high with boxes, filled with the debris of almost two decades of marriage.
It was next to the closest pile that she found the sprung trap. To her great disappointment it was empty. She wondered what could’ve set it off? Just then a trap near her snapped shut, apparently of its own volition. There was a pause, then the other traps started to close, one after the other, like a ghostly round of applause.
Kathy shrieked and ran to the trapdoor. But it slammed shut with a firm thud. There was a finality to the sound.
For a moment, everything was quiet. Then, “grrrrrrrrt grrrrrrrt…”
The trapdoor opened and it descended the stairs with its feet pointed outwards. It had never learned to climb like human children. On the landing it paused in front of the mirror to admire its new shape. It liked the mouth, so plump and pink, and the rows of straight, white teeth that it concealed.
There was the sound of keys jingling in a lock and the front door opened below.
“Honey, I’m home,” Ed’s voice drifted up the stairs.
“I’m coming,” it said, creeping down the stairs.
Ruby Parker is completing her MA in Creative Writing at UCT. In the past she has worked as a copy editor on titles such as House & Garden, Gourmet and Glamour. Her highest ambition is publishing a YA fantasy novel.