“When You Lived Inside the Walls” by Krishan Coupland

There are few at first. You hear them scuttling under the floorboards, pinpoint claws clicking wood. At night you think you can discern their squeaking—so high-pitched it is almost inaudible. It is a month before you actually see one. You come into the kitchen one night, empty glass in hand, and flick on the light. A brown body—larger than you had imagined—streaks for the gap beneath the fridge.

On instinct, you throw the glass. It shatters so loud that it pierces your ears. Fragments skitter across the tiles, but the rat is already gone.

You tell Dinah about it while she sits up in bed reading the paper. On the cover are pictures of bombs detonating over foreign cities, smoke curdling into fist-shaped clouds. “We’ll have to get some traps,” you say. “Traps and poison. We have to deal with this quickly.”

“That sounds like your department, Dear,” says Dinah. “Do you want to take the car tomorrow?”

You nod. You think of your daughter Millie tucked up in bed. The rat was the size of her tiny arm. Bigger maybe. “Yes,” you say. “Yes, I will. I’ll take care of it.”

*     *     *

Millie’s school has a teacher-training day, so you take her with you to the hardware store. She likes it there—begs to come whenever you need a new lightbulb or a screw for the kitchen shelf. While you look at traps, she browses the reels of cord and chain and wiring, touching each as though she longs to unwind them.

“The ones with jaws are best,” says the man behind the counter. He’s old enough to be your father, and so you trust his wisdom. Twice he’s duplicated keys for you on the squeaky machine in the back room. You’ve always found it a marvel that a man with hands as big and broad as his can do such delicate work.

“Aren’t they dangerous?” you say. “I’ve got a little girl.”

The hardware man looks past you to where Millie is rattling a rack of graded screwdrivers like wind chimes.

Vermin are dangerous. Traps are just traps.” But he disappears into the back room and emerges with two bulky corridors of wire—humane traps. Used, he tells you, but in working condition. It isn’t until you come to load them into the back of the car that you notice the wire is stained with blood.

*     *     *

Clearing laundry from the floor of Millie’s room, you find a saucer beneath her bed, the surface of it curdled yellow with old milk. Beside it lies a plate covered in stale rinds of bread. You observe the nibbled edges of the food. It makes you feel odd; never before, to your knowledge, has your daughter been capable of keeping secrets from you.

You tell Dinah about it while she completes her crossword. On the front cover of the paper that day are thermal images of human bodies, broken into pieces but still flaring warm against the sand on which they lie. “It’s a worry, don’t you think?” you say.

“She probably just wants a pet,” says Dinah. “Most kids do, don’t they? When they get to a certain age.”

“There’s pets and then there’s pets,” you say.

“Quite,” says Dinah, arching her eyebrows.

*     *     *

For days the traps sit empty, their wire mouths gaping. The more time passes the more foolish they look to you. What creature of any intelligence would fall for such an obvious ploy? Still you switch the bait religiously, trying anything you can think of: cake, cheese, sweets and chunks of salami. Peanut butter. Grapes.

At night an army of claws taps against wood. You can barely sleep from it, and when you do manage to doze your dreams are filled with red feral eyes peering from shadows, with gangrenous teeth and bald pink tails like stripped snakes.

One night you get out of bed, thinking to check on Millie. She’s not there. You switch on the light and inspect her room. Messy as ever: her Barbie bedspread cast to one side, her little desk scattered with glitter and scraps of poster paper. Out on the landing the lights are all out. You hear a voice whispering in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. Your daughter’s voice. The air in the house turns to nitrogen, icy and slick against your skin. You strain your ears.

“Silly thing,” she says. “It’s a trap, see. You must never, ever go in there, understand?” A tumult of squeaking answers. A dozen, maybe. “My father puts them out,” she says. “He doesn’t like you. He doesn’t like you at all.”

You stand silent on the landing, watching the shadows in the dark down there twist and move. Your daughter comes up the stairs. It is dark and she cannot see you. Rats flow around her in a tide. They chirp and skip and beg on their hind legs for a moment’s attention. She sprinkles them with smiles. “No, listen, I really have to go,” she whispers. “I’ll see you all soon, I promise.”

She pauses on every other step to wave goodbye. They squeak forlornly at the prospect of her departure. When you switch on the landing light they scatter and are gone in seconds. Their feet make a sound like frying bacon.

“Where have you been?” you say.

Millie gazes at you, wide-eyed, speared-through. “You . . . you were spying on me!”

“That’s not the point.” But she’s so hurt, and the anger seeps out of you all at once, like water running from a broken vase. You take her in to bed. “They’re vermin, Sweetie,” you say as you tuck her in. “You can’t play with vermin. It’s dangerous.”

Millie is on the verge of tears. “They’re my friends. They love me.”

It is the first time your daughter has ever spoken of love, and it makes your heart squeeze like an empty bottle of ketchup. “You can’t love vermin,” you tell her. “And vermin can’t love you.”

*     *     *

The next day you buy three different poisons from the hardware store. The man behind the counter eyes you doubtfully. “I’ve got a family to look after,” you tell him. He nods and bags up the tubes of powder like he’s handling bombs.

At home you read the instructions over and over, then slide doctored slabs of ham beneath the fridge. You hide poison-sprinkled cake behind the dresser. Even the garden isn’t safe; you kneel down and slide a toxic lump of cheese into the drainpipe.

In bed, your wife clucks over foreign wars, over pictures of dust-drenched corpses strung from lampposts. You tell her about the poison. “It’s the kindest way,” you say. “They never feel a thing.”

*     *     *

Millie brings home a drawing from school. It’s less crude than her first finger paintings—the ones which still adorn the fridge. She’s the best artist in her class, says the teacher in a scrawled hand at the bottom of the merit certificate. You examine it at arm’s length.

“Is this you, Sweetie?” you ask her, tapping the misproportioned figure that beams from beneath the apex of a four-color rainbow. She nods. “And these?” you ask, although you don’t really need her confirmation. She’s drawn herself surrounded by a sea of rats—more rats than you can count—spilling and boiling and burrowing around her so that she’s ankle-deep in their fur.

*     *     *

The rats don’t take the poison. You see them everywhere now. They writhe out of sight in darkened corners. They worm their way into gaps that seem impossibly small. When you go to tuck Millie in at night you’re sure that you hear a frantic flurry of scurrying just before you open her door. You see shapes moving beneath her covers—humped bodies the size of kittens.

From the kitchen window you watch as she holds court over her gang. It is fascinating in the same way that an infection is fascinating. She has set out a blanket and studded it with plastic plates, plastic teacups filled with water poured from a plastic kettle. Cross-legged she sits and the rats swarm about, climbing on her knees, poking their pink little noses in the air. She giggles. Her favorites perch on her shoulder, sleek black and huge.

Even when she’s with you she’s not quite the same. Sometimes you come in from another room to find her peering beneath the table. Sometimes, through the walls, you’re sure you hear her squeaking.

*     *     *

The man at the hardware store sells you the traps with jaws. You barely exchange a word as he bags them up for you. He knew it would come to this all along. He humored you with humane traps, with poison. His eyes are the glass eyes of a soldier. He bags up the traps like they’re nothing but groceries, but they’re heavier than you thought.

On the way out of the store, you pause. “What do I do,” you ask, “with the bodies?”

The hardware man searches you with a look, and there is almost sadness in there, and almost sympathy, but not quite. “Make sure they’re dead,” he says. “Then bury them. That’s what’s best.”

*     *     *

You tell Dinah that you are worried about your daughter. Dinah is watching the news while she makes peanut-butter sandwiches. On screen, bombs race toward schoolhouses and temples. Bombs insinuate themselves through windows and down chimneys. The reporter holds a missile launcher than can send its payload through the window of a speeding car one mile away.

“You worry too much,” says Dinah. “Mr. Barrington says she’s doing well.”

“I don’t mean that,” you say. But you don’t say what you do mean, which is that she is cold sometimes, and knowing sometimes, and that she speaks a language that is not yours, lives in a world that is not yours, and that this hurts you, as badly as if she were ripping slivers of herself from your skin.

On screen, the reporter fires his missile launcher at a cow. It explodes into a million bloody fragments. A shepherd in shawl and sandals staggers onto the screen, and kneels by the smoking corpse, tears shining in his beard.

*     *     *

The toothed traps bear fruit the very first night. You wake to the gunshot sound of one springing closed. You’re out of bed before you know exactly why. Dinah murmurs sleepily for you to close the door behind you. You catch Millie on the landing—woken, it appears, by the same sound as you. She is frantic with worry, but you send her back to bed.

The arm has come down on the middle of the rat’s body, crushing it. It looks absurd, almost cartoonish. Its mouth is buried in the pat of peanut butter with which you baited the trap. No blood. You stand in the door of the kitchen for several minutes, watching for movement. There is none. You creep closer, awed by your proximity to it. You’ve never seen one that didn’t startle and run before.

Millie must have descended the stairs on tip toes. She pushes past you and kneels beside the corpse, a howl already forming on her lips. You have to catch her little hands to keep her from touching it. “No,” you find yourself saying over and over. “It’s vermin. You can’t. It isn’t safe.”

*     *     *

After much has passed between you and Dinah, between Dinah and Millie, you make one concession: Millie is permitted to bury the body at the bottom of the garden. She does so solemnly, without crying, turning over the black earth with the plastic shovel from her sandcastle set. You and Dinah stand by, watching. It is her first grief. Or, at least, her first that you know of.

When you look back toward the house, the bobbing heads of rats peer from every window. Their eyes shine like coins at the bottom of a well.

*     *     *

After the first death, the rats are everywhere. Their claws don’t just scratch at night. As you move about the house you are pursued by a frantic skittering and squeaking, always just out of sight. Pink tails wriggle away beneath the sofa as you enter a room. Slick brown bodies scramble into skirting-board holes, into the gap under the earth pipe. They slither along the shelf above the bed in which you and Dinah sleep. They are waiting for you when you climb out of the shower, naked and dripping. They pause when you shoo them, standing unafraid until you feint in their direction. When they run, they run quickly, but pause to look back.

Two more die in the traps while Millie is at school. You bury them quietly, and pat the sod back down over the shallow graves. When you’re done, you rise to find yourself watched by a ragged company of beady eyes and pinkish tongues. You throw your trowel at them. It misses, and they barely flinch.

*     *     *

You cannot sleep. Dinah slumbers too deep to wake. You put your slippers on before going out to the landing. Quiet tonight. No squeaking or scuttling; the house is a tomb. You run cold water in the bathroom and rub sleep from your eyes. In the mirror something almost moves, but when you look there’s nothing there. You shut off the light and go to Millie’s room. Crack the door. Her nightlight casts the room in red.

“Millie?” you whisper. It is time now for reconciliation, for warnings, for a talk that you’ve been putting off too long. “Millie, wake up.”

But her bed is empty. Her room is empty. She’s left a note on her desk, pinned beneath the piece of polished glass she found on the beach last summer. To Mummy and Daddy, it says, Im sorry but I want to be with my friends. They need me lots so I wont come back. I love you both more than chocolate.

*     *     *

“Leave her alone,” Dinah chides you. “She’s growing up. You have to let her make her own decisions.” She flicks the channel from a charnel pit of human bodies to a mushroom cloud rising over a children’s playground—the play equipment is stripped away piece by piece by the blast.

“I miss her,” you say. But Dinah isn’t listening. Dinah is watching the news.

At night it hurts your heart to hear the scurrying beneath the floor. Clicking claws and—following close behind—tiny human footsteps. You’re sure you hear her voice rise, every so often, above the squeaking, but it’s so quiet you can’t make out the words.

What hurts most is the thought that she might be left behind. That the other rats might bully her for her furless skin, might mock her for her whiskerless face. Some nights you go downstairs and lie on the cold tiles of the kitchen to speak to the gap beneath the fridge. “I’m here, Millie,” you say. “I’m waiting for you. Don’t think that I’ve forgotten.”

*     *     *

It is winter again before you return to the hardware store. That’s how long it takes for the loss to mount, to surge up like a wall of water and crash down on you. You want her back, you tell the hardware man, who listens to your story with a face like a carving, then beckons you into the back room.

“The traps with jaws are the best,” he says. You shake your head.

“No,” you say. “I can’t. I can’t do that.”

He nods, lips thin, and disappears into the back room. When he returns he’s holding the largest cage you’ve ever seen. So big it barely fits through the door. The sprung trapdoor gleams with oil. Fresh metal, bloodless, never before used. He tells you the price and you reach for your wallet.

At home the cage fits perfectly into what used to be her room, and you bait it with her toys and key charms and the piece of polished glass. You put in cake and a bottle of juice. You prop the door lightly open. It is, undoubtedly, a trap. It will always be a trap, but you make it as beautiful as you can.

Krishan CouplandKrishan Coupland is in the Creative Writing PhD programme at the University of East Anglia. His writing has appeared in Ambit, Aesthetica, Litro and Fractured West. He won the Manchester Fiction Prize in 2011, and in his spare time he runs and edits a literary magazine. His website is www.krishancoupland.co.uk.