She thought going to the boonies would help things, but after a month and a half she is back. Her sister only picks up after the third consecutive call.
“I’m outside your house,” she says.
“I rang the doorbell and everything. Are you trying to avoid me?”
“God, Nathelie. I’m not home. It’s Tuesday. Are you really there?”
“I can hear someone inside.”
She can hear noise in the background over the call, too. Voices, indistinguishable. There is a sudden absent sound, as though her sister has pulled the phone away from her mouth, and then brought it back.
“Just—okay. I get off work in two hours. Can you just, I don’t know, there’s a park at the end of the street, you know the one I’m talking about. Go hang out at the coffee stand there. I’ll meet you when I’m done.”
“Who’s in your house?” Nathelie asks.
“I don’t know. No one. You’re probably just hearing the cat.”
“It sounds like a person to me.”
There is silence, like her sister is about to say something, but changes her mind. She says, “Nathelie, there’s no one there, okay? Look, I have to go, I can’t keep talking on the phone while I’m at work. Just go to the park, okay? If you don’t want to do that, go home and I’ll drop by when I’m done.”
Her sister hangs up. Nathelie keeps the phone at her ear for a moment, just listening to the beeping tone. Then, she turns her attention back to the house. It hasn’t changed. The last time she was here, they got into a screaming match in the backyard. She can’t remember what it was about. Her sister’s husband just stood in the corner over the grill. She still doesn’t know what her sister sees in him. The daughter was there too. Nathelie left after the girl started crying.
The house is painted a pale grey color; two modest stories in a squat suburban style. In one of the ground floor windows, the curtain hasn’t been drawn shut all the way. Nathelie can see the living room through the gap; the family portrait is hanging over the faux-leather sofa. It looks like their mother’s house, only one of the daughters is missing. As far as she can tell, there is no one in the living room. Whoever it is has to be further back in the house. If her sister isn’t lying, then maybe it is a burglar.
Nathelie looks up and down the street. There is no one around, just lines of cars parked like Christmas beetles on both sides of the road. She follows the little path from the front door to the garage, and then around the side of the house. Beside the garbage bins is a ten-kilogram bag of soil mix, and a large shovel. She wonders who has taken up gardening. It seems unlikely to be her sister, who killed every plant she ever brought home from school, but Nathelie can’t really picture the husband slaving away over pansies and lavender bushes either. Maybe it is the daughter. She must be five or six now, old enough to have graduated from day-care and been shunted off to school. Nathelie picks up the shovel, testing its weight in her hands. It is hefty, solid, albeit unbalanced. There’d been a garden up in the boonies, too. She had tried planting things, but none of them had flourished, except for the green onions. She takes the shovel with her as she continues on towards the back door.
“It’s me,” she calls out. “Nathelie.”
There is no response.
One thing she and her sister had in common while they were growing up was that they both, desperately, wanted a cat. Their mother always refused. Animals were dirty. They didn’t belong in the house. Of course, now that her sister has a house of her own, she can have as many cats as she pleases. Her sister has always been a moderate though, so there is only the one. It is a beautiful long-haired tuxedo, with a dramatically feathered tail, and enormous yellow eyes. Its name is Fish.
Fish is an indoor cat. Nathelie scans each new window as she passes it by. Most are curtained off, and she relies on memory to keep track of which rooms they conceal. Next to the garage is the living room, which splits into the kitchen and the dining room, which merge into the hallway. The hallway connects the front and back doors, a straight sightline from backyard to front lawn, not that her sister would ever have both doors open at the same time. Across the hallway, there is the guest bedroom and the laundry room, separated by a narrow set of stairs leading up to the first floor. Nathelie stops at the back door. It is an ugly thing; flyscreen overlaying a thick metal frame, with a single horizontal bar through the middle for support. She tests the handle. It’s locked, but she expected it to be. A burglar would be clever. She backtracks to the kitchen window. There are no curtains or flyscreen there, but the window is set directly above the sink and small enough that a person would have to pull themselves through on their belly. It is locked as well. The burglar must know she is here; they must have gone into hiding. She must be quick and catch them before they can escape.
Nathelie returns to the back door. She raises the shovel above her head, holding the shaft in both hands with the spade pointed forward like a spear. With a lunge, she strikes at the flyscreen. The mesh dents, but doesn’t tear. It is quieter than she expects; not quite a clang, more of a twang, hiss, hiss. She strikes again, at the same spot, and again. She is at it for what feels like hours, the shovel going up, down, up down. At last, the flyscreen rips, not from the centre, but from the frame of the door itself; a calamitous folding, as though the mesh is retreating into itself; imploding. Nathelie sets the shovel down neatly and reaches through the opening to unlock the door from the inside.
The house smells the same. A cool, vague smell, like green tea or a mild carpet cleaner. She picks up the shovel again and relocks the mangled back door behind her. The hallway is shadowed; the ambient light from outside reflects dimly in the timber flooring. Nathelie toes off her shoes and lines them up against one wall. Her socks make no noise; the house is new enough that it has not yet developed creaks. Her sister is very proud of this fact: the house was built the year before they moved in. It is modern, and has all the latest conveniences, including plasterboard walls. The guest bedroom used to be upstairs. For a time, it was Nathelie’s. This was long before the boonies, when it was more convenient to take the train to uni from her sister’s house than from their mother’s. At night, whenever she began to hear the bedsprings creaking in the next room over, she would tap against the wall in time with the rhythm. Her sister’s husband was very consistent. Nathelie only ever had to tap for seven minutes; she would count each minute going by with the neon red digits of the bedside table clock. Medical News Today describes this duration as adequate. According to Health.com, it is two minutes less than average. Her sister, when Nathelie related this information to her, seemed accordingly displeased. A few weeks after that, Nathelie stopped going to uni, and moved back to their mother’s house.
She makes a slow circuit of the ground floor. The shovel is getting heavy; she props it over a shoulder, firefighter-style, to lessen the strain on her arms. The rest of the house is similarly half-lit. This gives each room the feeling of being recently vacated; someone has only just stepped out, and the room has hushed, waiting for their return. There is no sign of the cat, but the heels of Nathelie’s socks come up covered in strands of black and white fur.
She opens the cupboards and drawers of the kitchen, one by one. She opens the dishwasher and the oven and the microwave, opens the fridge and freezer doors to reveal neat rows of produce and glistening parcels of frozen meat. All the knives are in their place, in the knife holder. Before she moves on to the dining room, she sees a little framed picture on the kitchen counter, propped up against the wall. It is of her sister’s daughter. The girl looks much younger, only a toddler. The top of her head is covered in fine down, and there is a red flush all around her mouth. She is staring at something out of view, standing in that bow-legged way that small children do, as though she is moments from toppling to the ground. Nathelie touches the picture framing glass, feels the squeaky slide of it against her fingertip. Then she tips the photo over, so that it hits the counter with a neat clack, face down.
She repeats this process in the dining room. Then the guest room, then the laundry room, until she comes to the living room. The photo on the kitchen countertop is only one of many—there are photos everywhere in the house. Frames all over the walls and cabinets and chests of drawers, pictures of her sister and her sister’s husband and her sister’s daughter in various combinations and postures and periods of life. There are pictures of their mother, too, and a few of their father as well. She turns them all face-down, so that the burglar will not be able to recognize the faces. The family portrait above the couch is the most difficult to hide. She has to put down the shovel again to prise it off the wall, kneeling into the couch with her arms outstretched to grip each side of the canvas. She places it on the floor, and on second thought shoves it underneath the couch itself. After she is done in the living room, she stops to listen. The house is very quiet. She has still not seen the cat.
The boonies had been quiet, too. But it was a different kind of quiet. She thought she would like it better, the quiet of no people around, just real, proper wildlife in the mornings: wallabies, kookaburras, quolls. But up there they turned out all the lights at night, so the stars rushed down from the sky, piercing and dizzying. Alone in her room, she had nothing do, and couldn’t fall asleep.
Her sister was the one who saw her off.
“Don’t let mum worry about you,” her sister had said at the parking lot. Nathelie knows that what she had meant was, Pick up some new hobbies. Spend time outside, with other people. Don’t call. The boonies were meant to have lasted four months, at least.
Now, there are no more hiding places left downstairs. Nathelie returns to the hallway and looks up the stairs.
“Hello?” she calls out again. “Hello?”
She begins to take the stairs two at a time. She counts nine steps, a total of eighteen. At the top, she tries one more time. “It’s me,” she says, softer.
There are more photos along the walls up here, but she begins to feel a need to hurry. How much time has passed? Surely it has already been an hour, an hour and a half. She has been so careful. The first floor is entirely carpeted, except for the bathroom. Nathelie flings open the door to the old guest bedroom, her old bedroom, which has now become a study. There are photos here, too, and their eyes seem to follow her as she dashes around the room, pulling the chair out from the desk, throwing open the walk-in closet, which contains nothing but boxes of printing paper and some dull coats. She stumbles out of the study and into the daughter’s bedroom, now dragging the shovel behind her across the floor, its weight finally too heavy for her arms to carry. There is nothing, there is nothing. Where are you, she wants to say, but the silence seems to be growing. Come out, come out to me. She claws off the girl’s duvet, casting pillows to the ground; she falls to her knees to search under the bedframe.
She hears a noise, behind her.
It is the cat. Fish. It is sitting in the doorway, insouciant. Nathelie watches as it stands, walks away with a flick of its beautiful tail. She follows it. The door to her sister’s bedroom is slightly ajar; the cat slips through the gap. As though in a trance, Nathelie pushes the door open.
The cat is gone again. She walks along the perimeter of the room, running her hands over the walls, feeling the papery catch of the paint on her palms. Here, there are only two photos. Both are from her sister’s wedding day. The larger one, which hangs above the headboard of the bed, is another formal portrait, of her sister and the husband. The smaller one, on the vanity, is of the wedding party. For the first time, Nathelie finds her own face. She is standing to the right of her sister, a little behind their mother. She looks just like another young woman, at a loved one’s wedding. She looks like she could be anyone.
Nathelie finds the cat again in the final room in the house, the bathroom. The lid of the toilet is made of a heavy ceramic. The cat seems to mould to the shape of the bowl, its head tucked into its soft white chest. She tips the lid down, and the sound of it snapping shut echoes against the bathroom tiles.
There’s no one in the house except for her. Or maybe there was, but they aren’t here anymore. They’ve fled. She’s scared them off.
By the look of it, two hours have almost passed. Her sister will be home very soon.
Nathelie goes back to the living room and lays the shovel across the coffee table. She sits down on the couch and waits.
Yiwei Chai is a writer from Australia and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies astronomy and astrophysics. Her work has previously appeared in Scum Mag, The Penn Review, ERA, and others.