Eliza shifted in her sleep. A Picture of Dorian Gray lay open, print down, on her chest, moving up and down with her breath. The oven clock glared red through the kitchen doorway to the living room, illuminating a tabby cat slinking past the armchair with the sleeping woman.
This was Eliza's second night away from her husband; the first time was when she had slipped on the ice in her driveway and broken her wrist. The hospital, while uncomfortable, was better than being left alone all night in the huge four poster bed, its curtains fluttering with drafts.
The tabby cat stretched before it leaped to curl on Eliza's lap. “Hello, cat,” she muttered, opening her eyes. She blinked, plucking the book off her breast and marking her page. “How long did I sleep?” She asked the tabby. It purred in response.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. Eliza started, but then laughed at herself. “I can't handle one night away from Mark.” She rose from the chair and started for the kitchen, the tabby glaring after her with reproach.
The stove clock read one-thirty-four. Eliza stopped and sighed. She had wanted to finish that book before eleven so she could chat about it with her book club tomorrow. So much for that. She poured herself a glass of water.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. It was hollow, like the sound of a trash can being abused. Eliza pursed her lips. “That furnace is getting unbearably loud. Mark was supposed to call the furnace repair men. I'll have to remind him to call in the morning.”
The woman lounged against the counter, sipping her water and blinking sleepily at the rays of streetlight flooding the window above the sink. The cat, grudge forgotten, wound around her ankles like a fur mantle, purring. Eliza dropped the glass into the sink, steeling herself for the long night--
From somewhere, there came a knocking. A pattern of three, then a pause, then another three knocks. Eliza stared at the floor vent. She knew where the furnace was: it crouched in a far corner of the unfinished basement, bare foundation meeting red steel.
When the couple moved into the house, it had been for sale for a very long time. The roof leaked, the wiring was certainly not up to code, and its large, echoing rooms were far more beautiful without 1970's wallpaper covering the walls.
The neighborhood children made up stories about the old furnace in the empty house, and Eliza could see why they would fear it. The woman picked up a wrench, ghost stories in mind as she traipsed down the stairs to the basement, intending to stop the noises, somehow, so she could sleep.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. The noise was louder now, and bounced off the piles of boxes Mark and Eliza had stacked here. The cat mewed at the top of the stairs. “Hush, Sassafras, I'll be back up in a moment.” Eliza fumbled for the light at the bottom.
With a click, the bare bulb lit up, and the shadows from the boxes and old furniture made the basement into a replica of the set of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, angles sharp and illogical, yellowed by the light of the cheap bulb.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. It was the sound of gnashing steel teeth, of heavy boots on sheet metal. Eliza tightened her grip on the wrench. “Perhaps I should wait--” she said, frozen at the bottom of the stairs. The sound of her own voice did not comfort her, as it had in the kitchen.
“I will not deal with this noise tonight,” she decided. Eliza stepped forward through the maze of boxes and mismatched furniture, both anxious and disgusted as her slippers conjured clouds of dust from the floor. “When was the last time we were down here?” She mused.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. It was closer this time, so she knew she was getting to the furnace, but the light produced from the bulb had faded. Eliza could barely see a thing. She reprimanded herself for not bringing a flashlight; she had forgotten that there was only one light.
Relieved, she turned around and headed back towards the golden circle of light, and climbed the stairs to where the cat was still waiting for her. “I'll just wear earplugs or something,” she told the cat and herself as she shut the basement door behind her.
Leaving the wrench by the basement door, she went to the kitchen, searching for earplugs. Sassafras the cat sat in the armchair, waiting for the woman to sit down. Eliza's search successful, the woman and the cat curled up like sisters on the chair, and went to sleep.
Eliza's sleep was fitful, filled with paintings and silent films. The cat, too, did not sleep well, fur rising on its back as, in its mind, it had become the prey.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. Eliza sat up, eyes open, heart pounding. “How did I manage to hear that?” She looked around, and saw that one of her earplugs had fallen onto the cat. She sighed with relief, then wondered why she was relieved.
From somewhere, there came a knocking. It was the sound of fist on wood, a demand of entrance. Eliza looked at the basement door. “No. I'm dreaming.” The knocking came again. It rattled the basement door, and this time, Eliza was silent.
The knocking came from behind the door. The woman stood and picked up her sleeping friend. “I won't open the door!” She whispered desperately.
As if hearing the words, the knocking stopped. Tears of fright wet Eliza's cheeks. The cat awoke and clung to Eliza, claws extended, ears back, eyes fixed on the plain basement door.
The doorknob rattled.
Panicked, Eliza fled without her slippers to the front door, where she ran out of the house into the pre-dawn light. Her hair disheveled, her pajamas dusty, and with a panicked cat in her arms, she rang her neighbor's doorbell.
Knocking was out of the question.