Sophie Henry

Maeve has a theory that it only takes ten days for anyone to get used to a change. A week is a long time. Add three days, she thinks, and you could adjust to almost anything.

On Friday, the first day, Maeve gets home and she can’t tell at first that anything is different. She hoists the grocery bags under her arm and shoulders open the front door to the house where she lives alone. Where she had lived alone. She steps into the house. It’s quiet. She goes into the kitchen, turning on the lights. It’s only after she’s put the groceries away that she cocks her head slightly, measuring her breathing, listening. She doesn’t know what made her stop. But something felt different. Something is different.

She waits, frozen. Then, there — a noise from the floor above: a floorboard creaking and a few faint but unmistakable footsteps. Someone is in her house. She slowly opens a drawer and pulls out a small paring knife. Her mind is racing. She lives alone — has always lived alone here — so someone else must be in the house. And if that’s the case, if she has to fight, or run, or scream, she’s ready. She doesn’t want to stab anyone. She tells herself that a small knife would somehow make it better, if it came to that. To actually plunge the point of a knife into flesh; to rip the skin and tear the meat underneath, free the blood — she thinks it would be easier to bear if the wound were smaller.

So she takes the knife with her as she creeps out of the kitchen, across the living room towards the stairs. She keeps her breathing slow, as quiet as possible. Her heart is pounding in her ears. It’s louder than her breath and she curses her body’s betrayal. How stupid would it be if she died because her heart was beating too loud, if someone were able to steal up on her, slit her throat, all because the only thing she could hear was the rushing noise of her own blood? She gets to the base of the stairs, puts a foot on the first step, and peers upward into the darkness. 

There is a jaguar at the top of the stairs, looking down on her. It’s sitting with its back haunches pulled all the way to its front legs, its neck extended regally, head drawn up to its full height. It almost looks like a statue, and at first that’s what Maeve thinks it is — but then she sees its tail, which is curled, resting on its front paws; slowly, lazily, the very end is twitching. The cat’s eyes are the burnished color of copper, and the moment Maeve looks into them she freezes.

Her mind goes blank. She can’t look away. The jaguar holds her gaze;  they stand that way, the two of them, until: The jaguar leisurely extends its tongue and licks its nose. Underneath the dappled pink, Maeve sees two sharp incisors, thick as her fingers and sharp as sickles, glowing white in the dark at the top of the stairs.

She moves her foot off the first step, and, when the cat doesn’t react, begins backing slowly away. The cat doesn’t move as she steps farther back. The last thing she can see are its feet, the tail still curled contentedly around them. Even when she can’t see the jaguar anymore, she still walks backwards, not daring to turn around. She maneuvers into the hallway until her back hits the front door. Her hand scrabbles behind her until she grasps the handle.

Maeve doesn’t open the door. She thinks about it, but is afraid that if she does the animal will come charging down the stairs with furious energy, like a bird of prey thrust into the air. She stands there, pressing her back against the wood, and she realizes that she’s been hunched over only as she forces her spine straight. She’s still clutching the paring knife, her hand squeezed so tight that her knuckles have turned red and her nails have left crescents of white in her palm.

She stays where she is. She thinks about going to one of her neighbors’, or driving to a friend’s, but as she thinks and does not move, the sun continues to sink lower. It becomes easier and easier, it seems, to do nothing. The shadows in the front hall grow longer, until Maeve is standing in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of the kitchen light down the hall. It seems ages ago that she turned it on. 

 

That first night, Maeve sits slumped on the toilet of the small bathroom off the kitchen, with the door locked. She doesn’t really sleep, jolting awake every time she thinks she hears a board creak or springs squeak above her. The second day is Saturday, so she stays holed up in the bathroom. She leaves exactly three times. The first time she just looks, her head poking out around the kitchen door; the second time she gets a cup of water and some cheese, which she chews silently over the sink; the third time she ventures into the living room to grab the book she’s reading, left on the couch two nights earlier. She needs something to distract herself, to slow her mind’s reeling and help her forget the large predator one floor above her. 

The third day, she makes herself a real dinner in the kitchen — quietly, paring knife always in her field of vision. As she eats, she thinks about feeding the cat; it might get hungry if she doesn’t, she worries, and then it might finally come downstairs. But Maeve has no idea what jaguars eat. She looks it up — apparently, jaguars eat deer. But Maeve thinks of buying all that raw meat, of bringing it home wrapped up, the blood slowly congealing in the plastic bags in the back of her car as she drives home from the butcher’s, or wherever it is you buy deer meat; of taking the meat into her house; of having to look at the parcels of death, each crossed by a web of veins, still raw and red, every time she opens her freezer; of having to heave heaps of cold flesh up the stairs; of having to wait as it warms up and the smell, rancid and heavy, spreads through the house before the cat decides to eat it — the whole thing makes Maeve gag. She stops thinking about it.

On Monday, the fourth day, Maeve gets up early. She’s still sleeping in the downstairs bathroom, which doesn’t have a shower. She feels gross. So she goes to her gym as soon as it opens and showers there. She also needs to get the change of clothes she keeps in her locker; everything else she owns is upstairs, in her bedroom. Where the jaguar is.

On her drive to the bank where she works, she thinks about telling someone there about the creature in her house. But what would she say? And who would believe her? And if they asked her what she did about it, she can’t imagine explaining that she trapped herself in her bathroom all weekend and did nothing. Besides, she tells herself, when she goes home after work, maybe the cat will be gone.

It’s not.

The first thing she does when she gets back to the house is to stand at the base of the stairs and look up. She can’t see the jaguar, but she can hear something: measured, steady breathing from the bedroom at the top of the stairs. She imagines the cat curled up on the guest bed, its mottled coat blending into the checkered pattern of the duvet, its weight creating a large depression in the cheap mattress, sleeping peacefully.

That night, the fourth, she doesn’t lock the door to the kitchen bathroom, leaving the knife next to the sink, though still within reach. On the fifth day, she goes shopping after work, buying a handful of outfits to last her through the week. She rearranges her pantry, putting newly folded shirts and jeans where she used to have pasta and rice.

She gets through the week by falling into a routine. Gym, shower, work, home, dinner, reading, sleep. Not too unusual, on paper. On Wednesday, the sixth day, when she gets home and looks up the stairs, she swears she sees its tail whip around the corner, out of sight. Her heart starts racing. She stays at the base of the stairs for longer than usual, both hopeful that she’ll catch another glimpse of the beast and completely terrified by the thought of seeing it.

She’s slept sitting on the toilet all week. No matter how many blankets she piles on the lid, it is not a comfortable place to sleep. At the end of the week, on the eighth night, Maeve decides to treat herself. It’s been a week since the jaguar arrived, and with every evening the beast doesn’t come downstairs, every morning that Maeve wakes up alive and okay, she relaxes, just a little bit. So she decides to try sleeping on the couch in the living room. She doesn’t actually sleep much that night. She lies in the dark, staring towards the staircase until she starts to see shapes in the shadows. She clutches the knife close to her chest underneath the blanket she’s pulled up to her chin. 

But the next night, she’s on the couch again, and this time she sleeps, though lightly. By the tenth, the couch has become her bed.

Those days, the ninth and the tenth, Saturday and Sunday, Maeve tries to spend as much time as possible out of the house. She goes to the beach, which she hasn’t done in years, and basks her tired body in the sun. She stays at the library for hours, reading whole books in one sitting, enjoying the smell of her childhood. She meanders at a farmer’s market, talking to vendors and taking time to savor the fruit she buys.

Even out of the house, her mind wanders to the jaguar. She doesn’t know what it’s eating or drinking, how it’s still alive. She figures it must go out during the day, or maybe at night, to hunt. She can picture it slinking past the couch as she sleeps, sliding out the front door, and slipping back up the stairs just before she wakes up each day — smooth and silent as water. She doesn’t know if it’s destroyed the upstairs of her house, if it’s shredded the beds and pissed on the carpets. Maybe it brings back the carcasses of its prey and the rooms are now bloodstained and littered with the bones of animals. She doesn’t know why the jaguar is there, or if it will ever leave. She starts to tell herself that maybe she doesn’t care.

 

The second week passes, then the third, and soon a month has gone by since the jaguar first arrived. Maeve doesn’t see the cat again, though she continues to check the stairs almost every day when she gets home from work. She knows it’s still up there, though she never so much as sets foot on the staircase. She wouldn’t dare. Some mornings, when she wakes up, she almost forgets that the jaguar is in the house. Sometimes she doesn’t remember until she’s already halfway to work. And sometimes, when it’s warm and bright and the sun is so high in the sky you could almost forget that it has to set, she even laughs to herself. It’s almost funny, really, that she lives with a jaguar.

She can live like this, she tells herself, until sooner or later she’ll wake up and go a whole day without thinking about the jaguar. She’ll come home and go to bed and not once think that the upstairs of her house is anything more than a place she does not go.