The drive was uneventful at best. The traffic gave her time to think and reminisce. Was she really about to do this? Go back to the apartment? What if they weren’t there anymore? What if they’d moved and this was all for nothing? All of these things made a nervous knot in Ashlynn’s middle, resting just above her diaphragm.
At any rate, she was committed now as she took that same left turn followed by that immediate right down the street. Emmett hadn’t said anything about what the place looked like now, and she could see why the places were being demolished. Many of the roofs looked weathered and worn. The siding was peeling from the building if not chipped. The windows in many of the apartment units seemed to be in good condition, but a few showed signs of the outer seal breaking, letting out essential heat or air. The road needed to be paved, but that always seemed to be an issue.
All of the houses looked livable, but they were in need of serious repair; and repair wasn’t cheap. There were a few cars nearby as well as a few self-move truck companies lined up at the doors of some of the houses. Evidently, Grandma Susie wasn’t the only one they were waiting on to leave the property. Then again, Emmett said she would be the last person to leave, not that she was the only one in the area.
Ashlynn’s eyes glazed over for a moment as she rounded the corner and saw before her, as it always was, her old apartment; and, thankfully, there was a lockbox on the front. It took some convincing, but Ashlynn managed to wheedle the key code from Emmett, making up excuses of wanting to see the old place and that there were some things she tucked away and wanted to see if they were still there.
Technically, it wasn’t lying, but she wasn’t being completely honest either; and she didn’t need to be. She had a promise to keep after all. Stepping out of her car for the first time, she stretched and stared at the apartment unit, thousands of memories rushing over her.
She walked up to the door and punched in the code for the key in the lockbox, fingers hesitantly grasping the key between them. A quick turn and a push and the door swung open. The smell was musty and untouched, but it was still exactly the same as she remembered it. She stepped into the apartment and stared at the empty walls and slightly dusty floors. No furniture. No glasses. No pictures. No sign of anyone living there.
The sight was a melancholy one at best. As Ashlynn stepped into the apartment, she could hear the laughter and see the smiles in the kitchen. She glanced at the corner and, just for a moment, she saw that stupid old mousetrap and the Borrower’s leg trapped under it. The place echoed and clicked with each step, the dust beneath her shoes stirring up memory after memory.
She just poked her head into the kitchen when something caught her eye, making her heart sink and her chest ache. There was a mouse trap on the counter. It was untouched, but seeing it stirred an anger in her she hadn’t felt in years. It was the same anger of having to deal with something someone left behind carelessly. Part of her wanted to snap the trap out of spite but elected to do it once she left. There were other rooms she wanted to see; and snapping the trap seemed like a good final goodbye to the place. A salute to everything that happened there – everything that started there.
Ashlynn stepped around the corner to her room, staring at the cracking paint and scratched against the floors. She walked back out into the hall and opened the closet door. There was some dust on the shelves, but nothing else out of the ordinary.
Ashlynn wandered through the spare room in the back and the bathroom, noting nothing out of the ordinary. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or heartbroken to see no signs of the Borrowers. Given the circumstances, she should have known they’d be long gone. They took moving seriously and didn’t do it without extreme consideration, but that small part of her heart wanted them to be there.
She remembered their last conversation the night before she moved out. She had asked them to come with her. She wanted them to come with her, and they thought about it for a long time. They elected to stay. A few new families had just moved in and needed help getting settled. It would also look suspicious if the Borrower trio were to leave.
Ashlynn promised to come back and check on them sometime in the future. She did – for a time. Then a new tenant moved in and coming back became harder and harder. Their last conversation was that they’d always remember one another, and they’d see each other again one day soon.
Ashlynn was suddenly brought back to the present by an ear shattering sound. It was a sound that was so familiar and made her breath hitch in her throat. She even jumped a little, eyes turning to the counter.
It was the snap of a mousetrap.
Her heart leapt in fear, but also excitement. Could it be? Ashlynn took a few hesitant steps forward and listened. She took a few more and called out softly.
“Hello?” She didn’t want to call out to Soren specifically if it wasn’t him. What if it’s just a mouse? Surely someone else isn’t in here with me. Oh heavens, what if it’s another Borrower? “Hello?” Ashlynn called out again. She took another step. Then another step.
Ashlynn rounded the corner just in time to see the snapped trap, the fragment of food on it was sitting nearby, and a brief flutter of motion by the electrical cover door she knew led to the walls.
“Wait!” she called, instinctually rushing a few more steps forward before stopping herself. If this Borrower wasn’t Soren, she didn’t want to terrify them by getting too close, rushing the door as if she were trying to catch them. Instead, she stopped, took a breath, and spoke calmly but loud enough to hopefully reach the Borrower in the walls.
“Please don’t go!” she pleaded. She continued her relatively frantic persuasion, being as direct and sensitive as she could given the circumstances. “I… I didn’t mean to frighten you. Look, I know about you – about Borrowers. I know you’re not supposed to talk to humans and I know you’re not supposed to be seen. It’s just… I’m looking for someone.”
She suddenly could only hear the blood pounding in her ears. Why was her throat constricting? Was she getting choked up over this?
“It’s really important. Maybe you know him. His name is Soren. We’re friends, even though it’s been a while since we’ve spoken. Could you pass along a message? Tell him Ashlynn needs to talk to him? It’s really important. Please?” There was an unforgiving silence as Ashlynn kept her eyes on the electrical cover.
Did they hear me? Do they even care? Is Soren even here? Ashlynn felt a quake in her heart as it continued to beat against her ribs relentlessly. The nerves in her body sent a shiver down her spine, but slowly she felt her heart begin to ache. No. They either didn’t hear me or didn’t stick around to listen.
With a disheartened sigh, Ashlynn turned to head back to her room in the hopes of calling out to the other wall entrance that used to be there when she heard something else – a familiar something else. It was the rhythmic tap tap tap of small feet walking along the counter. Then, a new voice caught her ears, yet was familiar at the same time.
Ashlynn easily slipped back into her old habits and spun on her heal slowly, eyes immediately falling on a figure standing no more than three to four inches. It wasn’t Soren and it took her mind a moment, but she recalled the name in an instant. Wow. It has been years.
The house hummed quietly with the sounds of the refrigerator and the dehumidifiers. There was an old, distinct smell to the unit which resembled wilting flowers, cat litter, and mothballs. It was an odd combination, but one that clearly marked the apartment unit belonging to an older woman, affectionately called Grandma Susie, and her cat, Jaida.
The cat, now getting along in years, always had a fascination with the back room where Grandma Susie kept her quilting odds and ends. Little things like thread, thimbles, fabric, and yarn for her various projects were kept in that back room. Jaida liked that back room, but it wasn’t because of the fresh cloth she could contaminate with her fur or the string she could chew on at her leisure. It was the small, darting creatures that lived in the walls that held her fascination.
Now, as she crouched low, the fierce feline knew she had it cornered. There was no way it was escaping her clutches this time. The cabinet it was currently under was too narrow for her to get under, but it had to come out at some point. Her dilated pupils captured every flicker of light and movement. A growl rose in her throat.
As keen as the cat was, she didn’t notice the string tied to the nearby broom handle and how, with a single tug, it came crashing down. Jaida jumped, sniffing at the handle just as that quick darting creature began sprinting from one hiding place to the next. It had just made it under the next cabinet when two enormous and slightly wrinkled hands grasped Jaida’s sides and hoisted into the air. The feline growled as her quarry was just out of reach once again.
“Now Jaida, clumsy girl, you need to be careful. You shouldn’t be back here anyway. Naughty girl, chewing on strings.” Grandma Susie’s gentle scoldings fell on deaf ears as Jaida narrowed her eyes at the small figure peering out from under the cabinet, a smile on his face.
“See you next time, Jaida,” said the Borrower with a smug grin. He knew Susie couldn’t hear him, but telling off the cat somehow felt right. The light, sandy-brown haired boy was all too familiar with the habits of the cat that had chased and injured his brother and him all those years ago. Rey watched as the door closed behind Susie, leaving him the room all to himself.
He knew it was a risk going into the feline infested apartment, but he and his family needed the thread and fabric. Besides, it was sweltering hot in the ceiling tiles and the other empty apartment units. This unit, on the other hand, was refreshing and cool.
There was part of him that wondered why the other units weren’t filled, but, then again, he didn’t fully understand humans even after spending years with one – Ashlynn. It had been a while since he thought about her and that old apartment. The sound of the radio brought him back to the present and his current borrowing outing.
He gathered up what was needed of thread, cloth, and a few fragments of ribbon before heading back into the walls. After tossing everything in and securing the electrical cover back to the wall, he pulled himself back into the safety of the walls. Rey had just about gathered everything up when his insides growled. He clutched his sides and waited for his hunger to quiet down. He knew he should’ve brought something.
With a sigh, he knew he needed to make one more stop. He still had to get some food supplies since their store was running low, but that would be an extreme challenge with Grandma Susie and Jaida walking around the unit. He decided to go check out some of the nearby apartments even though they were vacant. If he remembered correctly, there were a few mousetraps with fresh food which, he hoped, would be untouched.
Rey made his way through the walls, eyes falling on the old lines that he and Dorian used to use to navigate from apartment to apartment. It had been years since he’d accidentally been turned around in the walls they made their home.
The teenage blond Borrower knew far too well that mousetraps were dangers contraptions. Far too often did he remember what happened when he and Dorian first encountered a snappable trap and the damage it inflicted on their older brother, Soren. He was just a child then. The boy was older now and better understood the ways of the human world. The Borrower boy would be careful. After all, he had done this a lot recently.
Slowly but surely, Rey jogged through the walls to the old apartment unit he used to frequent in the open with his brothers. The dim light in the walls kept him privy to a few places where the wood and walls were crumbling. It was a shame the place wasn’t doing so well, but a Borrower with limited building supplies could only do so much. This was a human issue and one he hoped would be fixed sooner rather than later.
Rey finally reached the line and climbed up it. Instinctively, he listened for any sounds of humans. Nothing. He pushed open the electrical cover and peered out, the evening sun creating golden streams of light which flooded his vision. He paused to let his eyes adjust before stepping out on the counter. Sure enough, a fresh trap had been set.
The blue-eyed Borrower couldn’t help but look out across the empty apartment, mind tracing the outlines of memories from the place. He remembered the tile on the floor where Soren and Dorian were waiting after Rey’s unfortunate misstep into a glue trap. He could recall every detail of that dreaded day when he encountered Ashlynn for the first time – a human who he now missed.
He looked at the counters and signed. The breadbox used to be over in the corner and there was always a pot on the stove, even if it wasn’t being used for cooking at the time. The sink across the way was where they had random swim lessons if they weren’t using the bathtub. In all honesty, the sink was less scary than the bathtub even if the climb out was steeper.
Rey shook his head loose from all of these thoughts. The Borrower could talk to Soren and Dorian later about the good times in Ashlynn’s apartment. Now, he needed to focus on bringing something to eat back home. He walked up to the mousetrap when something caught his ear. Was that a creak of a floorboard? He couldn’t see the door, but could’ve sworn there wasn’t a line of sun that cast a shadow like that before.
Just get what you came for. You’re just seeing things. If a human were moving in, they’d have all of their things with them. They wouldn’t just come into an empty apartment for no reason, right?
Rey pulled out the clip to a pen, knelt, and aimed for the trip pin on the trap. One breath to concentrate. One breath to steady. One breath to aim. With a forceful Borrower toss, Rey chucked the cap clip as hard as he could. The bar tripped and slipped out of place, sending the menacing wire piece slamming down into the wood board it was affixed to. There was an ear shattering snap, making Rey shudder involuntarily, and then silence. Rey jogged forward to the piece of flung food.
Perfect! This is nice and fresh too. Rey thought cheerily to himself. Just as he knelt to pick up the morsel, he heard something that made his blood run cold. Every hair stood on end as he heard undeniable footsteps and the voice they belonged to.
What… no. It can’t be. Was there a human here the whole time? I just gave away my position.
More footsteps. “Hello?”
I need to run!
Rey, in his haste, abandoned the food he sacrificed his safety for and sprinted across the stove, leaping over the ledge, and grasped the edge of the electrical cover when he heard a desperate call to him.
“Wait!” The sound of thunderous, clicking footsteps was the only thing that overrode the sound of Rey’s heart in his ears. He slipped into the wall, hands shaking slightly as he grabbed the line. There were no more close footsteps – not that it helped his nerves – and light didn’t flood into the walls from the electrical cover being pried from its place. Both good signs. Just as he grabbed the line and began sliding down, he heard the human continue to speak.
For whatever reason, the voice sounded familiar. Why did it sound familiar? Rey stopped just a quarter of the way down the line and listened as the human not only called out for him not to go, but that she knew about Borrowers. This earth shattering confession only unnerved the teen more as he clung to the line, but he couldn’t shake the fact that the voice sounded familiar.
The voice was partially muffled, but he picked up on what she was saying.
“I’m looking for someone. It’s really important. Maybe you know him. His name is Soren. We’re friends, even though it’s been a while since we’ve spoken. Could you pass along a message? Tell him Ashlynn needs to talk to him.
Rey latched onto the words, finally recognizing the voice that carried them. Was it Ashlynn? Was it really Ashlynn? There was a part of him that worried that it wasn’t her and it was instead some kind of illusion, a trick of the mind. There was another part, a significantly larger part, that needed to know and, at the same time, had little doubt that this was indeed the Ashlynn he knew.
Rey hoisted himself back up the string and onto the ledge, cautiously peering out and catching a glimpse of a woman turning and walking slowly away. One look was all it took for Rey to recognize the human he knew. He hurriedly stepped out onto the counter, leaving the cover of the walls behind him, before calling out.
“Ashlynn?” The woman stopped and turned slowly. Rey stood completely breathless as those blue-grey stormy eyes turned on him, latching onto his form.
There was a flicker of confusion before a disbelieving smile spread across her face. Each recognized the other in an instant and it was like years hadn’t passed.