Perfect White Teeth
It was the smallest of thuds, but it startled Julia from her sleep. She lay wide eyed, completely still in the darkness, holding her breath. The pounding of her heart seemed to rock the whole bed. She listened to the silence, waiting to hear the noise again. Nothing. Of course not, she must have been dreaming. She finally let her lungs release the air they had been holding and sank back down under the duvet, letting her body relax.
She jerked upright and froze in a sitting position. There was no mistaking it this time, it was definitely a noise, and it was definitely coming from downstairs. She pulled herself slowly, silently, to the edge of the bed and let her bare feet rest on the carpet.
Julia’s whole body jarred. She scanned the grey shapes surrounding her, trying to get her eyes used to the darkness, hoping to find some clue of what to do next. She had no idea if her legs would be able to hold her upright, but she knew that she wanted to be wearing more than just a t-shirt right now. She grabbed a pair of jeans from the pile of washing at the side of the bed, and stepped into them. Leaning against the chest of drawers she steadied her trembling legs, and crept over to the doorway.
The hallway was pitch black, much darker than the bedroom, where she could at least see the smoky outline of where she was going. Right then, for the first time in weeks, she really missed Daniel. She had rarely thought of him since he had packed his bags and told her he was leaving. Four years building the perfect life together, and in the end he had left her for a younger model with perfect white teeth, who had massaged his ego, and no doubt something else, while poor old Julia worked her backside off to pay the bills and…
“Stop it!” She whispered to herself. This was exactly why she hadn’t allowed herself to think about Daniel for the last two weeks. She pushed him from her mind and tried to focus her eyes through the opaque darkness of the hallway.
“Shit!” Julia hissed through clenched teeth. The sound was louder now, more purposeful somehow. She cursed herself for leaving her mobile phone downstairs. Not that it made any difference. Who would she call? The police weren’t going to come rushing to the aid of a silly woman hearing bumps in the night. She reached out, feeling her way along the doorframe, until her fingers found the warmth of the textured wallpaper that Daniel had used to cover the cracks in the plaster underneath.
Unable to judge how far away the stairs were, she felt her way along the wall, guiding herself down the hallway as she shuffled forward carefully. The thick blackness gave way to various shades of grey as she reached the top of the stairs and rested her hand on the banister.
The noise sounded different now, clearer maybe. It made her think of a child’s small fist pummelling a door, but she still couldn’t tell whereabouts in the house it was coming from. Slowly, Julia started down the staircase, taking care to avoid the creaky step that Daniel had never gotten around to fixing. Fading moonlight shone through the downstairs windows and washed across the floor at the bottom of the stairs, as if lighting the path for her to follow. She stood on the bottom step, not quite sure of what to do now that she had made it to the ground floor.
The banging had stopped, at least for now, but there was something else – another sound, faint but audible – an unfamiliar noise somewhere in the house. She craned her neck trying to identify the sound, or at least which direction it was coming from. A rustling noise, maybe? No, not rustling. Scratching. Like the sound of a mouse digging in the corner. Or the sound that Daniel had made when he was sanding the basement door.
Julia stepped down on to the moonlit parquet flooring, instantly feeling exposed and vulnerable to attack from all sides. Not knowing whether to turn left toward the kitchen or right toward the lounge, she did neither. She simply froze on the spot, staring into the space straight ahead, hoping her instincts would alert her to any dangers closing in. There were no suspicious movements out of the corners of her eyes, no sense of a presence to either her left or her right, only the continuous scratching. And it wasn’t coming from the kitchen, or the lounge, it was coming from underneath her. It was coming from the basement.
She turned slowly to face the doorway at the side of the stairs. The bare wooden door stood shrouded in the darkness. A single thin wedge of moonlight paved the way from the window behind her to the basement door, as if daring her to move forward. The scratching noise had grown louder. Beads of moisture had started to break out on her forehead, and every impulse in her body was screaming at her to run away – to go back to bed, to leave it alone – but she couldn’t. She had to know.
Forcing her body to go against its own instincts, Julia took a step toward the door. The door appeared to respond to her brazen confrontation by making itself look bigger and more menacing with every step she took toward it, almost like a cat arching its back and raising its hackles to ward off enemies. She reached the door and pressed her ear up against it. The scratching was definitely coming from the basement, and louder than ever.
The smell of raw sawdust from the freshly sanded door made her think of Daniel, and how lovingly he had attended to every inch of the wood, only to go and leave it behind three days later. To leave everything behind. All his clothes, his possessions, were exactly where he had left them. If he didn’t get in touch soon, she was going to give them all to charity. She reached down and curled her hand around the doorknob, gripping it tightly. Part of her hoped it wouldn’t turn, hoped that she wouldn’t have to open the door and face whatever was inside, but the knob turned easily, and she edged the door open cautiously.
Blackness greeted her, accompanied by silence. The scratching had stopped.
Julia stared into the gloominess ahead, the damp smell of old boxes and rotting cardboard wafted up the stairs with a blast of icy air. Flicking the light switch was pointless – the light hadn’t worked for months – but she tried it anyway. As expected, nothing happened. Her heart pounded harder, and her head seemed to fill with heavy blood, whooshing past her ears. She grabbed the flashlight from the hook at the side of the door. It wasn’t particularly bright, but it would minimize the chances of serious injury. She shone the light down onto the uneven dingy-grey concrete steps. Starting down the stairs, she paused to calm herself as her heart pounded harder, the whooshing sound in her ears growing louder. The pounding and whooshing carried on all the way to the bottom of the stairs. Only now it didn’t sound like whooshing. It sounded like small voices. Whispering.
She took a tentative last step from the stairs to the cold basement floor, bringing the flashlight up in front of her to reveal a jumble of cardboard boxes lining the bare brick walls. Most had rising dark stains on the bottom. She stepped out toward the boxes, slowly moving forward – one step, two, three….then the whispering changed. It hadn’t stopped. It had moved. It was no longer in front of her, but behind her. She spun around jabbing the flashlight into the air, eyes wildly exploring the space for an explanation. Nothing but more brick wall.
She lowered the flashlight, illuminating the large white freezer on the floor. She had forgotten all about that ugly monstrosity. Daniel had brought it with him when they moved in together, despite her protestations, and it had been relegated to the basement for occasional storage of excess food. The whispering grew louder as she moved toward the freezer, eventually stooping in front of it, lowering her ear to listen to the gossipy tones coming from the bulky white box. Nothing coherent, just incessant chatter.
Julia straightened her back and placed her fingers around the freezer handle. The small voices intensified, speeding up in their excitement, almost like children about to be caught in their favourite hiding place. She pulled the lid upwards. A cloud of thick icy fog sighed into the musty basement, the small voices falling silent. She stood gazing into the frosty mist, waiting for it to clear and reveal what she didn’t want to remember. Except that she did remember now. He wasn’t going to leave. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Daniel had dumped her for a younger model, he decided that he was going to move the younger model into their home, and if Julia insisted on staying in the house with them, well that was just too bad for her.
The man wasn’t known for his sensitivity, but she would have thought that even he would have the decency to be the one to move out, considering that he was the one having the affair. But no, not Daniel. No, he expected her to leave, to move somewhere else and start again, while he sat happily in the house that she had found, and decorated, and furnished, and made into a real home.
“Over my dead body.” She smiled into the rising mist as it cleared to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. The younger model, forever frozen in the prime of her youth. Beside her, the man she had stolen from Julia, his chestnut brown eyes eternally preserved in their state of surprise.
“Now, shush, I need to get some sleep.” Julia told the unresponsive pair. She slammed the lid back down and stood a while, listening for any sign of further disturbance. Finally, triumphant in their continued silence, she made her way back up the stairs, making a mental note to buy a lock for the basement door. But by the time she had closed the door behind her, she had forgotten all about the lock. And the basement. And that two-timing rat who had packed his bags and left her for the younger model with perfect white teeth.