The Noise in the Ceiling

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Martha hit the last key on the typewriter. Full stop, the end. The book was finally finished and ready for publication.

She had been so consumed with the unravelling of her story, the speed towards the end, that no other sound in the room had reached her. She leaned back on her desk chair and stared at the tiny crack in the wall - the snake-like opening that lay just above a framed photo of the cottage she was renting. While working on the novel, she had come to think of the crack as a symbol of herself, a reminder of all the times she did not believe in herself. Like that crack, she had survived and grown.

But now, as she sat in silence with her opus completed, a new unfamiliar sound reached her. Something moved beyond the crack, caught between the ceiling and the hidden pipes.

She rationalised it at first: a mouse burrowed into a spot where it could not escape; a rattling pipe finally moving on its own accord; cockroaches congregating. The noise persisted through each of her theories, rasping and scratching.

Whatever it was, it wanted out. She pushed herself away from the desk, rolled her office chair to the cold wall by the door. The sound moved with her, fast. Away from the desk lamp, the room seemed darker. Night had descended hours earlier, swallowing the silent woods that surrounded the cottage. The noise from the ceiling grew louder away from the lamp's light - urgent. She tried to remember if Tom could be upstairs, perhaps planning a surprise. She did not want to think of intruders. The nearest neighbours were two miles away. Tom, her agent and lover, had called the cottage "Horror Book Haven" when she told him of her wish to retreat beyond Dunadd Hill. It had felt, at the time, the best hideaway in Scotland.

'Nobody around to hear you scream,' Tom had joked before hanging up.

She had been too annoyed to argue, to tell him that intruders were now safely bound to the suburbs, where they had a bigger chance of stealing something worthwhile. This was not an intruder, she realised: it was smaller, caught between floors.

She opened the office door as quietly as possible. The cottage's gloom filtered through the gap. All the lights were out. Her hands shook as she gently tried to squeeze her way into the living room. A soft thud came from above; the thing was trying to move into the next room as well. Where was her mobile phone? Upstairs, on her bed. And her car keys were in her jacket, also on the bed.

The clock hanging above the television gave the time as 1.32 am. Not a friendly visitor then. She searched for something to defend herself, a knife, anything sharp. The thing had moved with her into the living room. It rushed to the point just above her head and began gnawing on something. She thought of the choking noises that rats did before they died: it was a sound she knew so well after placing traps throughout the cottage. A gasping, gurgling sound.

She noticed the pile of chopped wood by the fireplace. She had planned to light the fireplace when Tom came over during the weekend to celebrate the completion of the novel. Tom, who had professed his love during her last book tour; Tom, who wanted a wedding in spring; Tom, who didn't know she had had an abortion once, as a teenager. Why was she thinking of the unwanted pregnancy now? She could not help herself: tiny little creatures invariably reminded her of the thing she had chosen to kill as a teenager.

What would Tom say if she told him she had terminated a foetus because she knew it was wrong for her to bring into the world a being she could not love? Tom, she felt, like everyone else, would not be able to understand what she had done. Her parents certainly hadn't. It was eleven years since she had spoken to them. A vow of silence and shame hung over them, the family's most bitter secret.

The noise above her head, though, was breaking the barriers of those banished years: it was eating its way through the plaster.

She grabbed one of the logs by the fireplace and made for the staircase. As soon as her foot touched the first step, the noise stopped. She stood as still as a statue, the image of a frightened woman ascending into more darkness. Her eyes kept losing focus. She did not dare switch on the lights; she did not dare make herself more visible to whatever sensed her through the ceiling. She climbed the stairs as slowly as the ticking of the clock on the wall.

Her bedroom door was open but, beyond its frame, lay a void she wished were not there. She cursed herself for turning off the light everytime she left a room. She cursed herself for being alone, for choosing to be alone. The bedroom challenged her with its gaping door.

She took a deep breath and ran into it. She hit the light switch but nothing changed; the gnawing in the ceiling must have cut through the wiring. She dropped the log. Her hands were clammy; her knees trembled as she searched in blindness for the bed. She found the duvet and guided herself to its edge. She spread her arms wide and felt for her jacket, her mobile phone.

In the middle of the bed she touched something small, wet. It began to cry.

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