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Death Rattle by Shelley Timms

Just before someone dies, they experience something called the ‘death rattle’. Wet, jagged breaths pulled from deep within the lungs that escape from a slack jaw and pale face with filmy, unseeing eyes. Lena hadn’t experienced it in real life, until that week at the cabin.

The cabin sat amongst an outcrop of other abodes, some occupied and others sitting cold and empty. Across the gravel she could see plumes of smoke curling like fingers into the air and around the branches of the canopy above – beside the cabin was a family SUV with Victorian number plates. The sun was on its way to setting, its rays peeking through the foliage and illuminating the leaves in a shimmery burst of orange. 

It was dark by the time she settled in. It was quiet at first, imperceptible. A gentle ‘shk-shk-shk’ like the cabin was settling into its foundations and the wooden flooring was following suit. By the time she fell asleep, she had gotten used to the noise and found it almost comforting. The sounds of nature, she thought. Unlike the constant, arterial hum of the freeway at home. 

By the second night, the noise had become louder, more insistent. Like a child tapping his mother’s shoulder, begging for attention. Thump, thump, thump. Notice me. Lena wandered around the living room, bending down to inspect the seams of the floor. The rattling had settled in her bones, making her grind her teeth and clench her fists in an attempt to dispel the anxiety. Every time she felt she was getting close the rattling stopped. 

Thump, thump, thump. This time it was coming from near the fireplace. A few steps towards the sound and then silence. Another room, another rattle. By mid-afternoon, she had noticed a pattern. A heartbeat, a deep breath. A shaky but sure inhale and exhale. 

The third night was restless. The rattling had become unbearable, vibrating the floorboards to the point where it was impossible to get comfortable on the wrought-iron bed. The rattling had disturbed a family of mice that had nested deep within the walls of the living room, seemingly as disorientated as Lena. One of them scurried across the floorboards and ran straight into the burning maw of the stone fireplace. Silence.

After an hour, the rattling began again. Another mouse scurried across the floor and into the flames. Silence. 

Lena stared at the crackling fire in disbelief. A sacrifice? The thought of it made her laugh. The first sound she had made in days. It felt foreign, gravelly.

She considered wrangling the other mice from their nest and throwing them into the flames. But the cabin was hungry, unsatiated by the meagre offering of vermin. Instinctively Lena knew she was going crazy. A sacrifice, are you joking? Get some sleep. 

It was dawn by the time she drifted into a feverish fugue state. 

A loud bang on the tin roof pulled her from her slumber. Then, a tentative knock on the door. 

“Excuse me, miss? Can I please get my footy off your roof?”

About the author
Shelley is a former Senior Editor for Underground Writers and an emerging author from Boorloo (Perth). Her short story, Appetite, was published by KSP Writers Centre in their 2021 anthology ‘Just a Voice’. In 2023 she became shortlisted for the Writing WA Love to Read Local Flashscapes! competition. Shelley is currently a judge on the horror short story panel for the Aurealis Awards.