Carol heard it first and woke me up. She told me to listen. Then I heard it. Bumping and scraping. Shuffling and clattering. I turned on the light. The sounds stopped.
It was still our first month in the new house. By new, I mean “new to us.” It was quite old; over 100 years. Like any old house, it had its share of creaking and groaning, but we’d grown used to all that after the first couple weeks. These sounds were new. Unfamiliar. Unsettling.
We listened in silence for a few minutes. Nothing. Carol flipped on the TV and we watched Chopped! for a little while before getting tired enough to go back to sleep. And we did.
The next morning, a Saturday, which was supposed to be a day for yard work, was spent sealing all the visible cracks and holes around the baseboards and windows. Carol’s concern, which I echoed, was a vermin infestation. Rats were a problem for some of the houses in the area. Our neighbor, a strange, elderly fellow named Herman, had mentioned an opossum infestation in his barn in the 1990s. “Just the cost of rural living,” he proclaimed, before regaling us with the details of how he dispatched them all in the course of an afternoon with a pitchfork.
I made a trip to the hardware store and picked up a few rat traps. Nothing major; just enough to put in the basement and in a few other areas we thought they might traverse. Over the next week, when we heard those strange sounds again, we just assumed we were dealing with rats. We were a little grossed out, but the concern was mostly gone. Their days were numbered. It was only when the traps remained untouched that we started to feel a little uneasy.
During a particularly bad, sleepless night, when the bumping and shuffling sounds went on for hours and I’d gotten out of bed and walked all around the house trying to find the source, I was frustrated and exhausted. I’d traced the loudest of the noises to a closet in the hallway. Hoping to scare the rats into shutting up, I pounded on the closet’s interior wall. When my fist struck the old board, the board next to it fell out. Scared the hell out of me.
Expecting rats to start scurrying toward me, I grabbed the board and got ready to beat as many to death as I could. No rats came. But the sounds had stopped. There was only the soft din of whatever TV show Carol was watching in the bedroom. I was getting ready to replace the board when I saw something on the ground behind where the piece had fallen out. I picked it up. A scrap of newspaper with the headline: “Another Infant Missing: 17th in 10 months.” It was dated March 3rd, 1933.
I shuddered and shoved the scrap in my pajama pocket. Of all the things the rats could use to make their nests, it had to be something so morbid. As I started to replace the board, the sound resumed. This time, it was far louder than ever. The bumps shook the house and a clattering like a thousand rattlesnakes filled the air. The power cut out. Upstairs, Carol hollered. I ignored her. Something else had grabbed my attention.
After the first, violent bump, before the lights went out, I saw the two adjacent boards in the closet had fallen away. They revealed a much larger space behind the closet than I’d thought.
I felt my way to the kitchen and grabbed a flashlight out of the drawer. I flipped it on and jumped a mile when I saw Carol standing across the room. She looked frightened and annoyed. I grabbed her hand and we marched to the hall closet. The rattling persisted.
We peered into the hidden compartment and followed the beam of the flashlight. Something on the floor glinted back. I started to squeeze between the boards to get closer. Carol grabbed my arm and told me not to go in. I shook her off. I made my way inside and saw something bizarre: a metallic, glittery wand and a very large tiara – way too big for a child. A piece of cloth was underneath. I picked it up and shook away the dust. The letters “TF” were emblazoned across it in garish, cartoonish cursive.
The rattling grew deafening. I turned around and saw Carol holding her ears and crying. I aimed the flashlight around the rest of the space. A large bucket sat in the corner. The two steps it took to reach it only served to increase the amplitude of the noise. As soon as I pointed the flashlight beam inside it, the sound stopped. The bucket trembled in the yellowish light.
Inside were more newspaper clippings with equally disturbing headlines. More missing infants. The more I pulled out and read, the numbers kept rising. The last one said “88”. December 12th, 1941. There was a thick piece of card stock under them. I lifted it and uncovered more pieces of paper. They were different. Handwritten. Just numbers and dates and what looked like prices:
4/4/39 – 3 – $30
6/23/45 – 10 – $95
10/1/46 – 2 – $25
And so on. There were lots of these. Receipts, I assumed. Carol had entered the room and stood next to me, clutching my arm. Under the receipts was another piece of card stock. I lifted it away and uncovered a few handfuls of little pebbles or seashells. Sticking out of them was a small, colorful placard with the same cursive as the cloth. We read it together. Carol screamed and I felt faint. Right then, I knew what the “TF” meant on the cloth. Cloth that had been, I realized, a cape.
I dropped the placard back in the bucket. The contents rattled. In bright, pink, hand-painted letters, the words stared back up at us.
For sale: baby teeth. Never used.