Jack’s caution faded then and gave way to a need which he was powerless to stop. He picked up a knife and began carving the pig, its crispy skin cracking as he plunged in. He put some slices on a plate for Carla and one for himself and then the pair of them scooped mounds of vegetables and everything else on top and covered it all in thick gravy.
Hardly even remembering to breath as he ate, Jack was in heaven. It was definitely the best food he had ever eaten.
A few minutes of pure bliss passed by, but then something made Jack stop still, fork midway up to his mouth. There on the table, between the plate of stuffing and the boiled potatoes, was a massive grey rat.
Jack hastily put down his food, nudging Carla in the ribs to get her attention.
“What?” she sprayed potato out at him.
The rat was now holding a stuffing ball and knawing on it with big sharp teeth, oblivious to the children’s presence. You could almost have imagined it was harmless, except for two things. 1. He was a big massive scary rat and 2. He had bright red eyes.
Unlike Jack, who knew rats only as disgusting city pests that live in the sewers, Carla had a different perspective.
“It’s hungry,” she said, going closer. “Hey little ratty, there’s plenty of food here for you.”
“Don’t go near it,” rushed Jack, not feeling for a second that they should trust the rodent.
“It’s only a rat,” said Carla, ignoring Jack and going closer still.
“With red eyes,” muttered Jack, annoyed that once again he was more scared than Carla.
The rat stopped knawing then and looked straight at Jack. It made a noise, somewhere between a squeak and a snarl, high pitched and fierce.
“We should go,” said Jack, already edging towards the door.
What happened next happened in the space of a few short seconds. Tens, maybe hundreds of rats poured into the kitchen from the far door, the cupboards, in fact from every corner and hole and pipe possible.
Each one had red eyes, and each one was looking directly at Jack. The noise that the first rat had made was now multiplied, earsplitting and terrifying.
“Run!” Jack shouted, lurching towards the door as quickly as he could.
Carla was close by him but they weren’t fast enough. The rats were already in the hallway and had swarmed to block off their exit back into the ballroom. The other doors were swamped too and there was no way Jack was going to attempt to get through them, so they had no choice but to rush up a small set of stairs, as the army of rats chased close behind. As fast as they could, the children dived through the first door they could find, shutting it fast and leaning up against it hard.
“What if they’re stronger than us?” Jack voiced the incredible fear he felt as he listened to the squeak-snarls and scratches coming through the door. “Not so harmless now.”
Calra’s forehead creased. “You wouldn’t understand. We haven’t turned our backs on nature.”
“I just don’t like big rats with red eyes!” argued Jack.
“They knew where you’re from,” said Carla.
“So you’re saying it’s my fault?”
“Whatever,” Jack said angrily.
It was only then that Jack actually noticed the room they were now in: a girl’s bedroom. The furniture was in keeping with the rest of the house- old and cobwebby, except this time it was all white. There was a four-poster bed, a rocking horse, a big dolls house with the front open so you could see all the rooms, and a dressing table. On the dressing table, amongst other things, was a music box. As the children stood there with their backs pressed against the door, the lid of the music box lifted slowly open and a ballerina popped up. She started to turn around as music plinked out.
Both children stared, wide eyed.
“It’s the dance of the sugar plum fairy,” said Carla, to which Jack shrugged.
He didn’t know if he was imagining it, but as the music played it drowned out more and more the scratching and squeak-snarling of the rats. But whether the rats were giving up, or the music was simply getting louder, he couldn’t quite say.
They waited, frozen, for the music to stop, which seemed to take forever. Eventually it got slower and slower, until it finished with one last loud ‘plink’ and the lid closed with a sharp thud. After that it took Jack a moment or two to realize that it was now completely quiet.
“It might be a trap,” he said cautiously.
“They’re only rats,” Carla repeated her words from earlier. She took her weight off the door then, standing up straight.
Warily, Jack did the same. His heart was thumping, as he prepared himself for the evil rodents to burst in and attack them. But they didn’t.
Carla was in the middle of the room now, on her way over to the doll’s house near the window. Maybe she was just acting, but it was like she wasn’t scared in the slightest. She sat down in front of the house, inspecting all the different rooms.
“Come here,” she said to Jack, without turning round.
Jack wasn’t keen to stay in the creepy bedroom, let alone start playing with the toys, but if Carla wasn’t scared then he had no reason to be either. He went over to join her.
“It’s a replica of the Old House,” said Carla. “There’s the ballroom,” she pointed to a big room with the same mosaic floors and mirrors. “And there’s the kitchen.”
There were tiny little plates on the table, bursting to the brim with food. There was even a miniature roast pig.
“No rats though,” said Jack.
But Carla didn’t hear him, she was preoccupied looking upstairs at the little girls bedroom. “It’s exactly the same,” she said.
All the furniture was white and in the same places, including the rocking horse and a tiny version of the doll’s house.
Carla gasped as the door opened and a little girl came into the miniature room, twirling round and round. She wore a white dress and had long blond hair, braided into two plaits. And she was distinctly transparent.
Jack quickly looked behind him into the room, but there was no one there. Back in the doll’s house the little girl smiled and waved at them, then sat on the rock horse.
Exactly at the same moment, the real rocking horse began creaking backwards and forwards.
Jack leapt up. “We really should go.”
“Wait,” said Carla, as the rocking horse stopped. She was still looking at the little girl. “She’s trying to tell me something.”
The girl was speaking, but her words made no sound. Then she drew an imaginary square shape in the air and pointed to her right.
“I don’t understand,” said Carla. “Please show me what you mean.”
The little girl twirled her way out of the bedroom and down the hallway to the right, past a master bedroom and to the end where there was a small study. Tiny books filled the shelves and there were overflowing stacks building up on the floor too. The girl went over to the table and pointed at one of the drawers.
“What’s in there?” asked Carl, but the girl was already twirling her way out the study and back down the hallway to her bedroom.
“She wants us to go to the study,” Carla told Jack.
“Where’s this Mr. Old though?” answered Jack. “Surely we can’t just go prying around without his permission.”
“She’s given us permission!” argued Carla. “She lives here too.”
Jack wasn’t sure if being a tiny ghost in a dolls house really qualified as ‘living there’ but he decided to keep that thought to himself.
“Thank you little girl,” Carla spoke softly. “It was nice to meet you.”
The little girl curtseyed and waved goodbye.
Carla was at the door now, and not wanting to be left behind, Jack quickly went after her.
Out down the hallway to the right, they went past one door which had to be the master bedroom. There was a large family portrait hanging on the wall.
“That’s the little girl,” Jack pointed to a blonde girl sitting on the floor in front of her Mum and Dad.
At the end of the corridor there was a closed door.
Jack knocked, all too aware that they hadn’t actually been invited at any point into the Big Old House.
“There’s no one in there,” said Carla. “You saw the doll’s house.”
“Yeah, but…” Jack started. He was going to say that that there was a little girl in the doll’s house and not in the real room, but then he remembered the rocking horse, moving all on its own.
Despite there being no answer, he knocked again. Carla’s expression was a little smug as she pushed the door open and went inside the room.
The study was exactly as it was in the doll’s house, except of course, bigger. Books were crammed onto shelves and were forming tall piles on the floor. A desk in the middle was also piled high with papers and books.
“It must be Mr. Old’s study,” said Carla. “I wish we could find him.”