It was late morning on a Wednesday, as I was working on my latest piece in our upstairs bedroom-turned-studio, when I heard the creak from the hallway. It was a slight metallic creak, like the spring in a mattress. I must admit I thought very little of it at first until I was struck by the realization that my wife could not have returned home from the baby shower so soon after we last spoke on the phone. A tinge of fear crept up my spine as I laid the brush down and held as still as I could, waiting for another sound. After several seemingly endless moments of holding my breath and resisting all urges to turn around to face the open door and the hallway beyond, I heard it again.
With a deep and silent breath I swiveled in my chair and gingerly took one bare foot off the chair’s footrest bar to plant it on the plastic sheet I had laid out on the floor and then, confident I had not made any noise to give myself away, did the same with my other foot. I stood slowly and walked with a deliberate and quiet, albeit swift, gait to the doorway. I paused, summoning my courage and chastising myself for overreacting to a sound I had doubtlessly imagined, before poking my head out into the hallway. To the left was the empty wall that marked the end of the hall. To the right I was shocked to see the ceiling panel to the attic was down and the old wooden step ladder attached was extended. I started out of the room, but stopped abruptly after a mere two or three steps.
On the ladder was a thing. A watermelon-sized ball of ratty gray fur with spindly arms the texture of barbecued mummy gripped the rungs as two equally spindly legs searched fruitlessly for the floor. Even extended fully, the ladder came three feet short of the carpet and the thing was simply not large enough to step easily down. But at the sound of my startled gasp, it dropped down and turned to face me in a crouch. Its eyes were like shiny quarters, set in deep furrows on a patch of dry and wrinkled skin. Save for this and the short snout that protruded from below the eyes, the rest of its body was the same matted and coarse gray fur.
“Hello…” It said in a helium-tinged voice just three hairs above a whisper. Its demeanor and voice were that of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “I did not think anyone was home.”
I studied the creature as it stood upright and brushed down the fur on its lower half.
“I was working in my studio.” I replied after finding my voice again.
“You were working quite silently.” It stated, eyeing me with equal parts fear and amusement.
I motioned over my shoulder toward the room behind me. “I was finishing my latest piece. Paint and brush don’t make a lot of noise.”
“A painter!” It exclaimed with a hideous grin sliding across its snout. “Oh how I love the arts!”
“Who are you?” I asked. “And what are you doing in my house?”
“Your house?” It chuckled. “By what right do you lay claim to this house?”
I stared at the furry lump with disbelief and disdain. A sense of profound superiority bubbled up in my chest. “Because I bought it. It’s mine.”
The thing waved its hands to dismiss my argument like it was wafting vapors from the air. “Meaningless paper exchange. I mean by what right do you lay claim to this house? Have you bargained away your soul for it? Have you protected it from the spirits of other realms? Have you imbued it with the magic of ancient secrets that have not seen the light of this world for eons?”
I had to admit that I had done none of these things. As thick as the paperwork had been, nothing in there that I could recall required me to take any such drastic actions to acquire the house. I tried to counter with talk of escrow and inspections, but the thing would have none of it. It took a step toward me, tentative at first. Then another. And another still.
“I have done all these things and more.” It hissed. “This house is mine. It is you who trespass here.”
I shook my head and took a step back. I wanted to argue, but the words stuck in my throat. It must have been a sight to see: this ball of fur no taller than my knee that backed me down the hall and into my studio.
“I have sat up there,” It said, pointing at the ceiling, “day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Waiting. And waiting. And at every turn another family, with snot-nosed children and barking dogs and obnoxious cats and worthless deeds, has trampled their way into my house and laid claim to that which is not theirs. And every time, I plot and scheme and wait until the right time to act. And then I do. And then they leave.”
Its silver eye spots twinkled. I felt the crinkle of plastic beneath my bare feet as I backed further into the room. I tried to think of what might be near at hand that I could use to defend myself, should this tiny thing suddenly attack.
“This time you have forced my hand. This time I –”
It stopped abruptly. Its snout wiggled and its eyes of mercury danced as it looked around the walls of my studio.
“Beautiful…” It whispered. “How marvelous. You painted these?”
I nodded and held my breath. It clapped its hands and I jumped.
“I will take them. I will take them all.”
My mouth dropped open. “You’ll do what?”
“I propose an exchange.” It said with glee. “The house for the paintings. I should like to have them all. I am, as I said, a fan of the arts.”
It extended a small, withered claw in my direction. With no small amount of hesitation, I returned the gesture and we shook. By that evening, when my wife had returned home, the thing and all my paintings were gone – never to be seen again.
I know my story may be hard to believe. I sometimes doubt the veracity myself on those nights when I lay in bed and play the events over in my mind. But I can assure you that it is all true.
And that, dear sirs, is why I refuse to accept your foreclosure on my house. You do not own it. It is my house. Paid for not with money, but with souls, magic and thirteen painted canvases.