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It was 2:17 AM when what sounded like a knock pulled Stacey from her sleep.
            For a long moment, not knowing what else to do, she continued to lie in bed. She stared into the darkness that drowned her bedroom with eyes she didn’t realize were wide open. There was silence around her for what felt like ages.
            Finally, she decided it must’ve been a bump in the night. Yet, as she snuggled the side of her head into her silk pillowcase, she heard it again, from downstairs.
            Knock.
            Stacey’s eyes flew open once more. She wanted to get up, but found herself petrified. Paranoia flooded her with a barrage of ideas that, albeit foolish, left her terrified. The most prominent was that an intruder broke into her home and made the loud noise by accident.
            If she stood up, her floorboards would creak, the second floor especially prone to this. The intruder would know she woke up and, worse yet, exactly where she was.
            Though she’d thought it accidental, a few seconds later she again heard the noise.
            Knock.
            Now, Stacey found herself growing more confused than frightened.
            What is that? She wondered. It’s too early for someone to be at the front door, but if an intruder made that sound, then why make it again? Shouldn’t they want to stay quiet? Those knocks are loud enough to wake me up!
            So, despite her fear, she decided she had to get to the bottom of this. She picked her phone up off of the bedside table, plucking it from its charger to hold it close to her chest.
            20 years old and living in the house all alone, she felt fear at the thought of standing up, so she took her time when she did. Sure enough, the floor creaked.
            She froze.
            When nothing happened, she breathed a quiet sigh of relief and tiptoed to her open bedroom door. There she stood, peeking through the crack as she waited for the noise that she now anticipated.
            Knock.
            Whoever—or whatever—made the sound did so on purpose. To Stacey, there was no other reason for it to keep repeating. She stood frozen in fear for what felt like an hour but must’ve only been five minutes. Then it happened again, pulling her from her horror.
            Knock.
            The woman pressed herself against the wall, her ponytail crunching against it. Then, she turned on her phone.
            She flinched when the bright screen flashed in her face, blinding her. As she blinked her eyes to adjust, she found herself about to speed-dial her parents. The moment she realized what her body wanted to do, though, she stopped herself.
            It was her own idea to live alone. Her mother told her it was a bad idea; that sooner or later she’d come crawling back to live with her again. After all, she’d always been a paranoid girl, disturbed by the most innocent of bumps in the night. Her hyperactive imagination, she felt, was to blame. If she called her parents and started crying, only to find out the noise was nothing, she’d feel like an idiot!
            Knock.
            I know; I’ll text Max!
            She let her hands return to her contact list. At the top was Max’s name; her ex-boyfriend, but still a friend. Opening their texts, she saw the last ones they’d exchanged, yesterday: “Thanks for what you said there. It meant a lot to me.” “No worries, Stace.”
            She’d always worried that he didn’t care about her anymore. How could he, when she’d broken up with him, last New Year’s Eve? During the countdown, no less.
            That detail brought her instant regret every time she remembered it. Would Max ever enjoy a New Year again? To her surprise, though, yesterday he’d confessed that he did care—that he enjoyed being her friend. It came as such a surprise, in fact, that Stacey cried over it the instant she was alone.
            He’s bound to be awake right now.
            “Max, come over,” she wrote.
            Wait, no. He doesn’t have a car.
            A few backspaces.
            “Max, are you there?” Again, hesitation.
            Of course he’s there, but he’s not likely to respond . . . He ignores me unless I have something important to say. Is this important? I could be about to die. But what if it’s nothing? He’ll think I’m a scaredy-cat.
            Knock.
            So, with a mask of faux bravado, she decided her pride as a woman was a priority and deleted the text. She wasn’t dead yet, and still that knocking continued. If someone wanted to harm her, she figured they would’ve done so already.
            She waited for the noise. Right on cue, she heard it.
            Knock.
            After turning off her phone’s screen, Stacey finally pulled herself off the wall. She slunk from her bedroom, being as careful as she could; the floorboards here were the loudest in the house.
            Creeeeaaaak.
            She froze again and waited for the sound.
            Knock.
            Considering that to mean that she was still in the clear, Stacey let out an anxious huff.
            The stairs, long and dark, were terrifying to her. Even so, she made her way down them one at a time. She walked sideways, distributing her weight more on the middle of each step than on either end. If her prior experience with the stairs gave her any hope, it was that doing so would prevent them from creaking so much.
            It didn’t take her long to make it down to the first floor. At the foot of the stairs, she held her phone close with trembling hands and waited for the sound to guide her.
            Knock.
            Stacey felt her blood run cold. The sound was coming from the basement. Quivering like a dying leaf, she approached the top of the descending stairs.
            Something she liked about this floor was how, at night, moonlight poured in from various windows. It basked the living room and dining area in a celestial blue glow. Juxtaposing this serenity, though, the basement was never anything but pitch black.
            Stacey’s heart pounded in her throat.
            Oh, why does it have to be coming from the basement, of all places? Why not the kitchen? Why not from under the living room couch?
            Knock.
            There it came again to haunt her, like a bad dream. Though every fiber of her being told her to run away, she turned on her phone’s flashlight. With a level of hesitance unknown to her until that moment, she panned it down to look into the dark abyss.
            When she moved in, Stacey filled the spacious basement with a maze of boxes. Even now, they were still packed. As such, though she could now see the stairs, she could see little else.
            She waited again for the knock . . . but there was only silence.
            Though mortified, Stacey’s curiosity got the better of her. She felt numb, as if her conscience cowered in terror. Regardless, she began her slow descent into the dark basement.
            As she plodded down the stairs, her heart pounded like she was running a marathon. If she didn’t know any better, she might’ve worried she’d die of sheer fright.
            In the darkness, her flashlight did little. In front of her were towers of cardboard boxes. As much as she wanted to pan the light, she couldn’t; her statue-esque body wouldn’t let her. Instead, for a long moment, she stood rigid in front of the staircase.
            She half-expected to hear the knock again, to then rush out of the basement crying out in terror. So, when no such cue arose, she didn’t know what to do. Pure, undiluted panic pumped through her veins, but somehow, it elicited only paralysis.
            But, despite the crippling tension, she knew what she had to do. She couldn’t stay still forever. So, moving so slowly she worried she may creak, she twisted the light down and to the left.
            Then, she saw it: a hollow wooden box sitting on the floor near some of the others. That particular box, however small, once held photographs. While she did recall leaving it down here, emptied, she couldn’t recall whether she left it on the floor like this.
            All of a sudden, from behind a stack of boxes came a thick ball of artificial yarn, one she’d bought for her cat.
            Stacey’s hazel eyes locked on the ball as it rolled at a steady rate. She watched it closely, as if it might do something unexpected if she didn’t.
            A few long seconds later, it finally came to a stop, bouncing against the wooden box.
            Knock.
            As the ball rolled back into the darkness, Stacey felt a cocktail of emotions wash over her: relief, glee, and last but not least . . . disappointment at her own fright. She loosened up and let out a titter to herself.
            Of course! God, how could I forget about Mittens? I’ve got half a mind to kill this stupid cat, but, oh, I’m so relieved!
            When the ball rolled out once more, the woman crouched and picked it up. “Bad, Mittens,” she scolded with a laugh. “You scared me half to death!”
            With that dealt with, Stacey stood and took a deep breath to calm herself. There would be no more knocking. So, pretending she hadn’t spent so long sneaking around in pure terror, she returned upstairs.
            Clouds had covered the moon, but still a faint blue glow drenched her. Somehow, the touch of natural lighting helped to steady her still-erratic heartbeat. With an easy exhale, she tilted her head back to let the gentle caresses of the moon fall onto her tensed neck. One of the basement stairs emitted a low cracking sound, but its softness assured Stacey that her cat caused it. After all, brittle wooden stairs plus overweight feline equaled creepy noises in the night.
            I bet half those sounds were from the stairs. If I asked the landlord, I wonder if he’d get them replaced for me.
            Stacey looked back at the dark doorway to the basement. Mittens didn’t come out, but she didn’t find that odd; if it wanted to, it would join her at its own pace.
            Almost against her own will, Stacey raised her arms and stretched, groaning as she did. Then, she yawned. Only then did it dawn on her what time it was. For confirmation, she checked her phone again: 2:22 AM now.
            Man, I must be a light sleeper or something. I’m beat . . .
            Keeping her eyes half shut, she relied on muscle memory to guide her back upstairs. This time, the stairs creaked, but she paid no mind. Her only concern was whether she’d be able to fall back to sleep. Considering her exhaustion, though, she felt certain she didn’t have to worry about that.
            Once back in her bedroom, Stacey helped the door drift shut. She didn’t close it, knowing that Mittens may decide to join her later. Through another yawn, she crouched and picked up her phone’s charging cord.
            After standing up on the bed and stretching, her other cat stepped closer and meowed. With a tender, relaxed smile on her face, she gave it a pat on the head. It took a few seconds for her heart to sink, her smile shifting into a frown as she realized that something wasn’t right.
            Wait. I . . . I don’t have another cat.
            Terror returning in thick waves, she grabbed the cat’s chin and turned its face up. The shape of its eyes and the black patches on its paws and left ear told her enough.
            It’s Mittens.
            When she felt her left arm starting to tremble, she knew the rest of her body would join in soon. Desperate, she tried to calm herself.
            No, no. Maybe . . . Mittens must’ve slunk by me. I didn’t notice him, that’s all! That’s—
            What cut her excuses short was the most terrifying sound she’d ever heard.
            Creeeeaaaak.
            Stacey’s eyes shot wide open. She recognized the noise as the floorboards outside her bedroom door. All at once, her heart resumed pounding against her ribs like a jackhammer. As slow as she could, she turned her head to look at the door. After a long beat of inner hysteria, she heard it, against the door.
            Knock.

 

Knock