The noise is back.
A slight scraping followed by a small muffled patter that disappears before they have time to make out what it is, or where it’s coming from.
“Was it footsteps?” Gemma frowns in her attempt to hear more. A deep crease has formed between her eyebrows.
“It’s probably just house noises.” And Matt gently cradles her, spooning her slender body, hoping to swallow her anxieties, to breathe out some of his own sleepiness on to her. She hasn’t slept much since the baby died. Her body a tangle of knots, her shoulders almost reaching her ears in the destructive tension of that aftermath.
It had been an accident. Nothing they could have prevented. Nothing they did, for they had put him to sleep on his back in his cot as they always had. And he had just died. Sudden infant death. Yes, die. Death. Not gone, left, passed away or whatever euphemism had been mentioned to them in the tiptoeing of condolences.
The noise is closer. Gemma’s body springs up like a jack in the box. “Did you hear it? Did you hear it?” Her voice is almost excited in her realisation that, yes, Matt heard it.
She turns on the side lamp and the light explodes. Small colourful dots dance in Matt’s eyes as they adjust. The bedroom looks normal. Their twin beds pushed together, the flowery wallpaper, the faux Tiffany lamp, the heavy curtain and the large mahogany wardrobe, dominating the room in its opulent monstrosity.
This place would have not been his first choice and he’d suggested sunshine and a poolside but she had insisted that what they needed was to find a secluded place to reconnect after the long months of grief had torn them apart. The small house had looked wonderful on the ad, perched in the middle of nowhere, and they both had rejoiced at the thought of going for long hikes in the crispy winter sun followed by warm evenings drinking wine by the fire.
They had found the key in the small key safe outside of the weathered front door, alongside a short note from the landlady briefly welcoming them to Yorkshire and telling them that the fuse box was in the small cellar whose door was on the right of the kitchen sink. Matt had been surprised that the landlady had not bothered turning the electricity on for them, but hadn’t said anything, noticing the disappointment shadowing his wife’s face. So he had turned the flashlight function of his phone on and gingerly clambered down the small staircase. Thankfully he had found the large lever easily and pulled it up, hearing the hum of a generator going off as a small neon light blinked into the darkness. The room was small and dimly lit, a large trembling shadow splashed on one of the walls, and humidity rising through the sandy floor.
Definitely not curious about investigating any further, Matt had quickly walked back up and closed the door behind him, hoping that the fuse box wouldn’t need further attention until the end of their stay.
Gemma was inspecting the expiry date on the two small beer bottles she had found in the fridge. She opened them both using the angle of the table and a sharp blow of the flat of her hand and handed him one.
“The fridge wasn’t on but they’re fairly chilled.” She gulped down half the bottle before raising it to him. “Hmm, average,” she exclaimed, exaggerating the ‘hmm’. Matt loved the twinkle in her eye as she added: “It matches the welcome and the house furniture.”
They had spent the rest of the evening by the fire, eating cheese and olives and drinking warming sips of red wine, making planning the next day’s hike. It had been perfect, just as they had imagined it, and a semblance of happiness had lodged itself into their broken hearts.
“Do you hear the noise?” She had asked a couple of times. But he hadn’t. “It’s probably from the fire,” he had reassured her. The wine had wrapped its blanket of sleepiness around them and they had put the fire out and rushed under the covers.
“Matt! I can hear footsteps.” He can hear something too, along with the ineffable unpleasant feeling of a presence.
He gets up, shivering, eyes still not fully adjusted to the crude light and has a look around, not knowing what he’s looking for. Maybe a mouse? A ferret? He checks quickly under the bed, opens the large wardrobe and pops his head out of the bedroom door. The cottage is very small and he can embrace the landing and bathroom opposite in one quick glance.
“There’s nothing here, Honey. Maybe there’s a mouse in the roof. Please turn the light off.” And the darkness envelops them again.
It’s barely light when Gemma stirs again. She stretches a satisfied groan before rolling to face him. “I slept well.” The black staining under her eyes is not has pronounced.
“Come on, let’s go make some fire and coffee, we’ve got a long way to hike.” She puts on the clothes she had the night before and without waiting for him goes downstairs. When he joins her in the kitchen a few minutes later she’s battling the coffee machine. “It’s not working.” She opens the fridge to get some juice. “Shit. Looks like the fuse box needs switching back on.” She eyes his bare feet. “I’ll go.” Matt can’t help but feeling relief at not going back down. The sandy-ashy floor. The weird wing-shaped shadow on the wall. The musty smell. “Box is on the right!” he shouts down when he doesn’t see her come back, when the humming of the generator doesn’t rise.
Some soft footsteps right behind him. Hair at the back of his neck rises. Matt suddenly turns around, met only by the fridge’s gaping mouth, its lights suddenly on.
“Gemma?” You okay down there love?”
Muffled footsteps. Strange footsteps that don’t fade but don’t come closer. On the spot footsteps.
Matt walks down, wincing at the grit under his bare feet. Gemma is facing the wall, her finger gently tracing around the angel wing shadow on the wall.
I miss him so much, she whispers.
On the second night, Gemma can’t sleep. The long hike has failed to tire her and she feels every bone in her body on the old mattress. She thinks of those footsteps, she wants to hear them again, she likes them. She likes it here. She feels close to him. She likes the angel wing shadow downstairs, the warm feeling it gives her when she touches it.
Matt doesn’t like it; the cellar makes him uneasy. It reminds him of scary movies when shadows of tree branches spray on walls, always looking beast-like.
Then Matt realises, before nodding off, that there are no windows in the cellar, no furniture. Where does the shadow come from? What shadow is it off?
The footsteps don’t wake Matt this time. Gemma gets out of bed quietly, tiptoeing down to the kitchen, following the muffled noise, and opens the cellar door as slowly as possible. She looks at the angel wing shape on the wall, feels warmth spreading through her body.
A small hand comes out of the shadow.
A plump dimply hand, with those impossible-to-cut nails, sticky with the remnants of that very first strawberry jam toast, opening and closing in anticipation, inviting her in.
She takes it.
B.F. Jones is French and has stories in (or soon in) STORGY, The Cabinet of Heed, Train Lit Mag, Soft Cartel, Spelk and Bending Genres.