“Charlotte? Charlotte, honey, where’s the corkscrew? Our guests are thirsty!”
“I told you,” Charlotte strolled out of the kitchen with a platter of delicate hors d’oeuvres, “Top left drawer of the bar.”
“On the left?”
“The left!” she called, winking at Margery with the empty glass, “I swear blind and deaf sometimes.”
“You and Dale always have the best New Year’s parties.”
The new champagne popped on the other side of the room. The guests ebbed and flowed. Through the sea of knee-length skirts and ironed pant-legs, a red mess of hair in footie pajamas was looking for his mother.
“Oh my God!” cooed Margery, “Is this Aiden? I bet it is! How old are you now sweetheart?”
Aiden found his mother and hid behind her skirt.
“He’s so shy,” Charlotte apologized, “Just turned six last month.”
“Well if he isn’t the cutest!”
Aiden lightly tugged the fabric to get his mother’s ear, but she only patted his head.
“Dale wanted to name him Ash, but I mean come on. After all that? Seems like it’d be bad luck, y’know?”
“Or certainly bad taste.”
“Charlotte?” Another guest called from elsewhere, “Charlotte something’s rattling in the kitchen – is there something in the oven maybe?”
“Excuse me,” she smiled and drifted away, trailing Aiden as her sleepy-eyed caboose. The kitchen was full of grey-haired ladies smelling strongly of bad soap. Aiden tried to hide in the shiny black fabric at Charlotte’s knee.
The tapping was coming from behind the wall. A little here. A little there. It traveled slowly from one side of the kitchen to the other.
“Sounds like you got a vermin in there,” a tight-permed lady said.
“Sounds heavy,” said another. Charlotte pursed her lips. She had no time for such unpleasantness. Aiden watched blank spots on the wall, following the sound.
“It’s probably nothing,” Charlotte waved it off, “You know how the pipes are.” The other ladies nodded and agreed. The highly engineered walls of Silo 3 just needed a few more years to settle.
The tapping stopped.
“See?” she said and rearranged the contents of a tray. Aiden tugged again on her skirts.
“What is it?”
“It’s cold in my room.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes in performance. The other ladies looked on, how cute.
“Well we’ll just turn up the heat a little–”
Boom! The room was silent. The tapping started up again, louder, and more insistent. The ladies shifted uneasily in their places as the encroaching thunder echoed from the air vent.
“Dale!” Charlotte called, “Dale there’s something in the vent!”
Nerves twisted as the sound grew louder. Dale and several others arrived and a confusion set in. Aiden was ignored into a corner, standing on his toes to get a glimpse of what was going on. The grate was removed and handed away. Someone yelled for a flashlight. Another for gun. A lady screamed, a shot was fired. And the room, for a moment, was silent.
“Well,” Dale rubbed the back of his neck, “If any of you find you’re missing a black cat, I’m very sorry.”
Nervous laughter rippled around the room.
“I guess they really are bad luck,” another man’s voice sloshed about as the kitchen emptied. Aiden dodged the taller legs as he moved closer to his father.
“Hey there buddy,” Dale set the rifle on the counter in an embarrassed motion. Over his father’s shoulder, Aiden could see the open vent. At the very end of it, in dark, he thought he saw a wisp of long black hair.
“It was a cat?”
Aiden watched wide-eyed as the grate was replaced.
“We’re gonna get the maintenance crew to take care of the rest,” Dale assured him. Did all the commotion wake you?”
“My room is cold.”
“Well why don’t you grab the extra quilt, ok? The one in our closet – you know where it is?”
Aiden nodded. In the living room, the adults were coming down from their high of panicked excitement, congratulating and laughing at themselves in equal measure. Charlotte stood in the hall, speaking in low, harsh tones to someone on the other end of the phone line. Aiden drifted through their New Year’s Eve splendor, entirely unnoticed.
He opened the door to his parent’s room and flipped on the light. Time stopped. Breathing stopped. All thoughts stopped in an instant. On the far side of the room, there was a child. A filthy, malformed child with feral eyes. Its bony body was loosely draped with rags. The grate of the air vent lay at its feet.
It occurred to Aiden to scream, but nothing came. He was caught in its gaze, frozen by the sunken face beneath tangled strands of long black hair. It raised a twisted finger to its lips.
In the other room, the adults were counting down. For a moment, Aiden risked a look over his shoulder. His heart sank further – no one was coming. In a twitch, he snapped his gaze back to keep a steady eye on the other — but it was gone. The grate returned to the vent. Not a single trace of what had stood there.
And down the hall they were shouting, “…three, two, one… Happy New Year!”
The image is from Wiki Commons, “800px-Steel_air_vent_for_cold_air”. Public domain image.