Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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The Lady in the Attic

by Susan Savage Lee




Dylan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, holding a sealed box of CDs. He looked up at the huge Victorian mansion, half-expecting to wake up and find that it was all a dream. The front seemed to be all windows, but the ones that attracted his attention were on the third floor. They looked like eyes, Dylan thought. Before that thought could completely pass through his mind, a black blur flitted across the left top window. Dylan tried to focus on it, but he couldn't see it any longer.

"Hurry up, Dylan. I want to show you the inside," his mother said, popping her head outside of the front door. Dylan didn't say anything, but he hurried a little faster at the thought of finally having a room that he didn't have to share with Ben.

The inside of the house was filled with wood paneling and huge vaulted ceilings, instead of peeling paint or cracks in the window panes like Dylan had expected. There was no way that his parents could afford a place like this. After being unemployed for nine months, his father had finally gotten a job. But it wasn't anything special. Something like low-level management.

"How can dad pay for this?" Dylan said, after following his mother into the sixth room that looked as perfect as the last.

"He has a job now."

"Yeah, but--"

"Well, consider it a New Year's Eve surprise," his mother said, smiling with her red lipstick and perfectly capped teeth. Products of a different kind of childhood. It must be his Grandma, Dylan thought, looking around again, the box still firmly planted between his hands. She had said that she wasn't going to fund their family any longer, just because her daughter had insisted on marrying a dead beat.

"It's February 22nd, Mom," Dylan said, doubt creeping back into his voice.

He had gotten a job at a gas station after school to help his mother pay bills. Looking at this place now, without the reality of his Grandma's money, made him think that he would be doing the same thing again--wasting his last two years of high school earning minimum wage.

"Well then, it's a Leap Year surprise," she said, still smiling. When she saw that Dylan wasn't convinced, she became serious. "Look, I know this has been hard for you, but things are different now. You can do whatever you want after school," she said. "No more jobs." Dylan looked at her, feeling a piece of his black hair falling into his eyes.

"Seriously?"

"Yes," she said, brushing his hair from his eyes. "We got the place for very cheap," she said. "That's how we could afford it."

"Ok," Dylan said, still somewhat doubtful.

"Now go upstairs and choose your room," she said. "Before Ben and your dad get here."

Dylan nodded his head. He started up the spiral wooden staircase that seemed to reach the stars. He looked into a small bedroom, peering around the corner. It would be perfect for Ben. Dylan kept walking, sticking his head into each of the four rooms on the second floor. Finally, at the end of the hallway, he noticed a much larger room, but definitely not the master bedroom. His mother had already told him that a new, more modern master bedroom suite had been built off of the kitchen by the previous owners.

Dylan walked into the room and put his box down. He was surprised to see that his bed had already been set up in the middle of the wall opposite the windows. He hadn't remembered his mother saying that she had already picked out a room for him. Curious, Dylan opened the two closet doors and when closing the one closest to the window, he noticed a big wooden square in the ceiling. It had a tiny metal circle to pull it down with, but Dylan wasn't tall enough to reach it. Over by the closet door, he saw something black sticking out over the door frame. When he reached for it, he found a metal rod with a hook at the end. By extending it to the metal circle, he could reach the circle.

"You shouldn't go up there," Ben said. Dylan was startled by his little brother's voice. The metal rod fell to the floor with a clang. "The lady in the attic likes to be alone."

Dylan turned around and looked at his eight-year-old brother with his teddy bear tucked between his side and his arm. His eyes were swollen from sleep. Ben always fell asleep in the car and the second he woke up, he would say the strangest things that he claimed to not remember later on.

"What do you mean?" Dylan said. Ben's eyes suddenly got large, noticing the metal rod.

"This is going to be my sword," he said, running to the rod to pick it up.

"No way," Dylan said, picking it up before Ben could reach it. "You'll poke an eye out with this thing."

"I'm going to go tell Mom," Ben said.

"Go right ahead," Dylan said, recognizing his bluff. Ben's shoulders sagged and then he ran out of the room, looking for other places to explore.

Dylan smiled. He envisioned his Nirvana and Sonic Youth posters hanging on the wall. In the summer, he wanted to take a road trip to see them at Lollapalooza. He could already picture it: the freedom and the escape from the strangeness that his family had become.

***

The school's cafeteria was filled with the clatter of lunch trays and students' voices echoing off of the cinderblock walls. Dylan stood there for a minute, holding his lunch tray. Each table was filled with cliches: preppy girls tossing back their hair and giggling, hippies lounging in their chairs, disgusted by the brown liquid that was supposed to be tomato soup, and nerds with their books and notebooks out. There was one lone table where everyone was wearing black or some kind of concert T-shirt. When he saw a blond-haired guy with a Nirvana Bleach T-shirt on, Dylan started walking towards them.

He didn't even say anything. He just put his tray down at the edge of the group and sat down.

"Who said that you could sit here?" the blond-haired guy said.

"Your Mom," Dylan said, picking up his sandwich gingerly and examining it for suspicious details. The other guys laughed.

More than anything, Dylan wanted to put his headphones on and block it all out. There was nothing worse than starting at a new school. Well, there was one thing that was worse than that: starting a new school in February. Get ignored for four months, forgotten for three, and then start the whole process over again in August.

"That's cool," the blond-haired guy said. "I'm Luke."

"Dylan," Dylan said, trying to sound like he didn't care. Already he could feel the impending questions. Where did you go to school before?

"So you're the kid who moved into the house in Olde Marco," Luke said, smiling slightly.

"No way!" one of the other kids said.

"Yeah. So?" Dylan said, looking at Luke and dropping his sandwich onto his tray.

"That takes some balls," Luke said.

"What do you mean?"

"You mean you don't know?"

"Know what?"

"About the house," Luke said.

"Yeah. It's totally haunted," one of the other guys said.

"That's bullshit," Dylan said.

"I'm serious," Luke said. "No one lives there for long. It's either four years or eight years."

"Why?"

"Because they go nuts," Luke said. "Geez, you really aren't from around here, are you?"

Dylan didn't say anything. There was a ball in the back of his throat. He could hear his mother's voice. A Leap Year surprise. We got the house for very cheap.

"I don't believe in that kind of stuff," Dylan said.

"Doesn't matter. You will soon," Luke said, leaning back in his chair. "So you like Nirvana?"

"Yeah," Dylan said. "Sonic Youth. Screaming Trees. Etc. Etc."

"That's cool," Luke said. "What are you doing after school? Going back to your creepy house?"

"Maybe."

"Well, we're going to the beach after school. Listen to some music. Etc. Etc.," Luke said, imitating Dylan's deadpan tone. "Want to come?"

"Sure," Dylan said, even though he was supposed to go home and help his mother unpack.

You'll make friends, don't worry, she had said that morning, smiling like she always did. But maybe cutting your hair would help? Dylan had shaken his head, his shoulder length hair moving along with it, and said, No way.

"Earth to Mars. Are you receiving?" Luke said.

"Yeah. Loud and clear," Dylan said.

"Well, meet us at Tigertail, closest to Olde Marco."

"Got it," Dylan said, thinking that maybe it wasn't so bad being here.

***

Dylan had procrastinated going inside, partly because he knew she would be angry and partly to see if the black blur was in front of the attic window again. When he opened the door, his mom was standing there, her hands on her hips, her lips a thin line.

"Where have you been?" she said, following him with her eyes as he brushed by her.

"I went out with some kids from class," he said.

"Well, you should have called from school. You were supposed to watch Ben."

"I thought you said that things would be different?" he said. "That I could do my own thing for once."

"Well," she said, looking down at the polished hardwood floor. "Next time call me or stop by first."

"Ok," he said, trying to hide his smile.

"Dinner will be ready in half an hour," she said, raising her voice as he started up the stairs. He made a waving gesture with his hand, but he didn't turn around.

In his room, he flopped on his bed and stared up at the textured ceiling. The plaster looked like faces, and for a moment, he thought he could see Krista's there, smiling down at him.

Luke had brought the other kids from the cafeteria, but Krista had also met them there in her Volkswagen Beetle. She had dyed black hair with tiny purple streaks. In the sunlight, the purple strands changed color.

"You know that everyone who lived in your house died," Krista said, blowing smoke out of the side of her mouth. He had never been into smoking, but when she did it, she looked like a movie star.

"I'm sure at some time," Dylan said. "The house is really old."

"No, Cool Guy," she said. "They died in the house." She watched him with her black eyes that glittered.

"How?" he said, trying to pretend he didn't care. In the ocean, a really pale-skinned man was fending off the waves and losing.

"They killed each other."

"Yeah," Luke said. "It's because of the Lady in the Attic."

"What do you mean?" Dylan said, sitting up. He could see Ben standing there holding his teddy bear, rubbing at his eyes and sleepily telling him about her.

"Some lady was stood up at the altar a million years ago," Krista said. "She later found out that the groom ran off with her sister. So the story goes that she decided to seek revenge on families because she got betrayed by her own," Krista said, exhaling on her cigarette.

"What happened to her?" Dylan said.

"She killed herself in the attic," Krista said. "And from then on the house was cursed."

Dylan couldn't talk about it any more. Even out in the bright, safe sun, he could feel his skin crawling. He picked at his cuticles to avoid shivering and then hearing them laugh at him because of it.

Now, on his bed, he tossed around the story. It had to be some stupid thing that really bored kids came up with to explain tragedies or to find something to do on Halloween. But it was February, the month of love, the first Leap Year in the '90s, and Black History month. Then he sat up suddenly, noticing it for the first time. The attic ladder was down, blocking his closet doors. In his fantasy about Krista and the Celtic cross around her neck, he hadn't noticed it. And he was sure he hadn't gotten it down before school.

"Dinner's ready, Dylan!" his mom shouted up the staircase. Dylan got up quickly and ran to the landing.

"Did you go up into the attic for something?" Dylan said, leaning over the banister. His mother had been about to walk away, but she stopped and smiled up at him.

"No, honey," she said. "Maybe your father did."

"Maybe," Dylan said softly. He walked down the staircase very slowly, already certain that his father had no reason to go up into the attic.

***

In his dream, Krista was smiling at him with her dark red lipstick. He could see the tips of her teeth as he leaned forward to kiss her. They were in his room and the window was just beyond her, the sun gleaming on Krista's purple-streaked hair.

His heart was beating hard inside of his chest and something made him open his eyes before he reached Krista's lips. When he did, she was no longer there. A woman dressed in all black with withered, leathery skin sat in her place. The bones in her hands were swollen and gnarled with age, the fingernails too long. They were painted black.

She smiled at him when their eyes met. Dylan tried to push himself back against the headboard to escape her. It occurred to him to try and run from the room, but he was paralyzed into stillness, unable to do anything except stare at the strange old woman's face in front of him.

"I'm going to get you, sweetheart," she said, lifting one of the arthritic hands and wagging a finger at him. His mouth went dry as if she had sucked all of the air out of his lungs and throat. "I always do."

The old woman started coughing and she politely covered her mouth with a balled fist. When she moved her hand away, Dylan saw a couple of maggots squirming on top of the wrinkled, jaundiced-colored skin.

Dylan sat up in bed, his back and chest covered in sweat. He looked to the foot of the bed, but there wasn't anyone there. On his nightstand, the digital clock read 3:33. Across the room, the attic ladder had been shoved back into place. When his eyes adjusted, he scanned the room once more, turning his head from side to side at the smallest sound. Once he was certain that it was entirely a dream, Dylan lay back down into his pillows, unable to close his eyes. He was no longer thinking about the dream, but the fact that his father had said that he hadn't gone up to the attic. He said it in an absent way with his mouth full of potatoes. Sitting at the dinner table and now, laying flat on his bed, the emptiness of his father's voice and the fact that there was something wrong with the whole way he said everything, unnerved him.

Dylan turned over onto his side. It had been naive to believe that he was going to resume the life of a seventeen-year-old boy as if what came before hadn't come before. He closed his eyes and in a few minutes, he was asleep and dreamless.

***

After school, Ben wanted him to play Legos. Ben liked to build neighborhoods and then make up stories about the Lego figures that inhabited them. Downstairs, Dylan could hear his parents arguing. Maybe it was the wood floors or the vaulted ceilings or both, but everything echoed throughout the house.

The arguments had started when they moved in. Really, they had started the year before when Dylan's father lost his job. He had been coming in late and leaving early and, after a minor accident on the job, his employers did a blood test only to find out that he had been drinking. He was fired and remained jobless for nine months. Whatever had caused his behavior had never really gone away; it was just buried and unspoken.

Dylan tried to focus on what they were saying, but he could only get snippets of the conversation. A part of him wondered where the money had come from, however small or large, to pay for this house. It had to be borrowed. The other part of him considered the idea that his father hadn't even gotten a job, that this was all some kind of hoax. Dylan sighed. People like his father always wanted nice things. The problem was that they don't want to work to get them.

"Something bad is going to happen," Ben said, moving one of his tiny Lego men through the front door of his Lego house.

"What?"

"The lady in the attic told me," Ben said, tilting his head to look at the Lego town. He stopped and looked at Dylan with his big blue eyes. Dylan had resented the fact that his parents were having a second child so late in life, but now he couldn't imagine his life without Ben. "She said that Daddy lies."

"About what?"

"About where he goes," Ben said. "And why we're here."

"What do you mean?" Dylan said, his throat going instantly dry. He tried to focus on the details of the Lego town, the crooked roofs on some of the houses, the fact that one didn't have windows, but all he could think about was the ladder extended into his room like an omen.

"She told me that I shouldn't trust him. And when the bad thing happens to come to her."

"What bad thing?"

"I can't tell you," Ben said. "I promised her that I wouldn't tell anyone." Dylan sat there, pushing one of the unused Legos across the hardwood floor with his finger.

The teachers at school said that Ben had some kind of disability because he had fallen out of a tree when he was six. But Dylan remembered that he was different before the fall. He told Ben to stop saying these things at school. Pretend to be like the other kids. At home, though, he could say whatever he wanted. People won't understand, Dylan had told him.

"Does she wear a black dress? The lady in the attic?" Dylan said. Ben nodded his head and he picked up his Lego man again, making him hop around like he was walking.

"And really wrinkled skin like an old map," Ben said.

"Who is she?" Dylan said, his throat becoming drier and drier by the minute. The argument downstairs got louder and then abruptly stopped. Back to whispering, Dylan thought, or at least, trying to.

"I don't know," Ben said. "The lady in the attic."

"Are you scared of her?" Dylan said.

"No," Ben said, happily. "She tells me stories."

"When?"

"When I'm sleeping."

"What are the stories about?"

"The people who used to live here," Ben said. "And how special Leap Years are."

Ben held up his Lego man. He tilted it back and forth, smiling as he held it.

"Happy Leap Year!" Ben said in a different voice like the Lego man was talking. Dylan looked at the plastic figure, noticing for the first time that many of Ben's favorite toys didn't have faces.

***

"How's the haunted house?" Krista said, sliding into the chair next to him. The art room was buzzing with his classmates' voices before the bell rang. Dylan looked up from his sketch pad. He quickly flipped over the cover of it to hide the sketch of the lady in a wedding dress.

"Same as always."

"That's not good," Krista said, still looking at him with her dark eyes.

"Do you really believe in haunted houses?"

"I don't know," Krista said. "I think that houses can leave behind the essence of who people once were. Like if the people were bad, then the house takes on those feelings."

"Did the lady in the attic really exist?"

"Yes," Krista said. "She definitely existed. I guess that being left at the altar wasn't dramatic enough for some people," Krista said, laughing under her breath. "But if it is true, then it always happens on Leap Year."

"That's three days away."

"Yeah," she said."What were you sketching?"

"Nothing," Dylan said. Krista gave him a sour expression right as the homeroom bell rang.

"Well, maybe you can show me nothing some time."

Dylan heard the principal's voice come on over the speakers, but whatever he said went unheard. All Dylan could think about was that dark red lipstick and how pretty Krista was when she smiled.

***

When Dylan and Ben came home from school, Ben ran upstairs to his room, excited about resuming the construction of his Lego town. Dylan thought they were alone until he heard a sound coming from the study off to the right of the foyer. He didn't even put his backpack down; he followed the sound.

His father was standing there in the middle of the room with his hands in his pants pockets. He was wearing a cheap looking suit with the jacket flung over a leather-backed chair behind the desk. It was always strange to see him in business clothes, even if they were cheap. At their old house in Naples, his father came home with black-stained pants and work shirts from whatever construction site he had been sent to that day.

His father turned around, but he didn't seem to recognize Dylan at first. When Dylan wasn't thinking of Krista's lipstick or the possibility that she might like him, he turned over what Ben had said to him, trying to break the code. I'm over-thinking it, he thought. It's all pretty clear.

"What are you guys doing home?" his father said, somewhat annoyed to see him there.

"We got out of school," Dylan said. "What are you doing?"

"There was a strange sound in here," his father said, turning around and looking at the room. "I thought I heard voices."

"It's an old house," Dylan said, but he could feel that dryness in his throat again, the first stage of his anxiety building. More than anything, he wanted to grab his younger brother and run away. Just go anywhere but here.

"Yeah," his father said, absently. He still hadn't explained why he was home from work so early. It was only 2:45. "Do you hear strange things in the house ... like voices?"

"No," Dylan said. "I told you, it's just an old house."

"You're right," his father said, facing him again. He tried to laugh and when he did there were dark lines around his mouth that Dylan had never noticed before. It was like an artist had smeared charcoal around his mouth and jaw. "I guess I'm being superstitious."

"Yeah," Dylan said. "I guess you are."

He turned and walked out of the room, although he was uneasy turning his back to his father. They had never gotten along, even when Dylan was a kid, but there was something off about him now. Ben knew it too.

In his room, he stared at the attic opening, half-expecting--like he had for the past few days--to see the ladder unfold and an old lady wearing black slowly creeping down each rung. But the sun kept shining and the smell of gardenias from the open window filled the air. It seemed ludicrous to imagine horrors or terrifying things happening when everything smelled so nice. Dylan had always imagined that in horrifying moments, things must smell bad, like bombs going off or the coppery scent of too much blood being spilled. It couldn't smell like gardenias with the sun glittering off of tiled roofs. It just couldn't.

***

In the middle of the night, Dylan woke from a confusing dream. He couldn't remember what had happened, but he was sure that the lady in the attic hadn't paid him a visit. His throat was dry, almost painfully dry, so he got out of bed and quietly went downstairs.

The house was silent except for the sound of a bed creaking as someone rolled over or a branch hitting the window. In horror movies, the branch hitting the window was always a red herring meant to confuse the main character before the real threat emerged. Standing in the kitchen drinking glass after glass of tap water, Dylan waited. The house remained silent.

For whatever reason, the idea of going back to sleep seemed impossible. He picked up his glass of water and put it back into the sink. His mother hated dirty dishes on the counters. Thinking about his mother made him stop and lean against the counter. Probably when she was his age she had had dreams and hopes about traveling all over the place or marrying some knight in shining armor. Despite the polished wood and the vaulted ceilings in the house, this most likely wasn't the life she had planned at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Her life must feel like a failure. The thought as it presented itself so clearly in his mind made him ashamed. His mother didn't think she was a failure; it was her son who did.

Dylan walked into the hallway and then the darkened living room. A streetlight cast a yellow glow across the couches. In the dark, their furniture looked high-end, but if it had been day time, it would have been obvious how cheap it was, just like his father's suit. The image of his father standing in the study entered his mind like a terrible memory. Dylan found himself walking back to that room, unable to help himself.

He stood right where his father had stood and he listened to the sounds around him. There was nothing. No voices, no ghosts. He closed his eyes and tried again. Nothing. When he opened his eyes again, his gaze fell on the desk that his father used to pay bills. His mom actually paid them, standing at the kitchen counter and writing check after check, making sure that they had enough not to bounce. His father merely pretended that he did these things, that he had any idea how to run the household.

Dylan went over to the desk and sat down in the chair where his father had slung his cheap business jacket. He wanted to turn on a lamp, but his mother was a light sleeper. She would sense some kind of change downstairs and show up, asking questions. Instead, he pulled out a book of matches that Krista had given him when they smoked cigarettes that day at the beach. He liked to keep mementos, even though there was nothing on the match book like a business name or unusual graphics

Dylan lit one and then slowly slid open the drawer that his father always opened, the few times that Dylan had caught him pretending to be the breadwinner at their old house. It had been easy to accidentally step into someone else's space there. The house had been way too small for four people.

There was a bunch of Christmas cards from his Grandma and aunts and uncles who they never visited. Dylan moved those aside and then the match went out, leaving that burning smell. Dylan froze in the dark, certain that his mother would smell it and come to investigate. When no one came, he turned on the small lamp on top of the desk. If she came to the study, he would get up and pretend to look at the books on the bookshelf, saying that he couldn't sleep. He put the matches back into his pocket.

With the light on, he could see his Aunt Estelle's handwriting on the Christmas card on the top. He pushed them all aside again and saw a manila envelope. It seemed strangely out of place since there was a bigger drawer beneath it meant for files. Dylan slid it out and put it on top of the desk. When he opened it, he couldn't interpret what he was seeing. Mutual of Omaha guarantees that ... two hundred thousand dollars for ... life insurance.

Dylan stopped when he got to the bottom of the last page of the first policy. It wasn't the amount or the fact that his father had something like this. He remembered his mother talking about life insurance, but when she had, she had wanted to insure his father because of the nature of his job. It hadn't been the other way around.

Even this troubling detail wasn't the worst of it. It was the signatures at the bottom. One was obviously his father's, but the other one, using his mother's name, had not been signed by her. Sometimes, Dylan had had to write out the checks for the utilities at the old house when his mother worked too much. She would sign the blank checks and after awhile, he got used to the flowery way that she signed everything.

This signature wasn't like that. It was blockish like his dad's. Dylan kept flipping through the pages when he saw that the first policy for his mother wasn't the only one. His father had insured Ben and Dylan too: for two hundred thousand dollars each. My life is worth two hundred thousand dollars to my dad, Dylan thought, before shutting the envelope. He straightened the pieces of paper so that it looked like it had before and put it right back into the drawer beneath the Christmas cards. Dylan turned off the lamp.

As he walked back upstairs, he wondered if Ben was right. No one ever wanted to admit that the strange things that Ben said were always right. Like when he said that their dad had lost his job, even though he pretended to go to work for two weeks before he admitted it to the family. Like the time that their cat went missing and Ben said that she was in Ms. Osgood's house and that Ms. Osgood knew it was their cat. We just tell him to talk about that stuff at home, Dylan thought, sliding back underneath his sheets again. Sometimes, people didn't want to know things before they happened.

***

"I need a favor," Dylan said to Krista. He had caught her getting out of her car. He recognized the 1980s red Volkswagen Beetle from Tigertail.

"What's up?"

"I need to follow my dad and see where he's going."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't have a car," he said, quickly. "If we leave now, we'll just catch him."

"Ok," Krista said. "I didn't think it was in the cards to go to school today anyways, but I gave it a shot."

They got into her car and when the engine started, the Smiths started playing on her tape deck. I wear black on the outside because black is how I feeeeel on the inside . Dylan looked out of the window and smiled. He would never admit to his guy friends that he liked the Smiths.

He told her where to go. They parked a few houses down and waited. At exactly 9am, his father came outside, wearing a cheap suit like the one he had had the day before.

"Is he cheating on your mom or something?" Krista said. They had both hunched down so that his father wouldn't see them parked. He wouldn't recognize the car, but he was paranoid about burglars and being watched.

"I don't think so," Dylan said. "But I don't think he has a job like he says," he said. The image of the life insurance papers entered his mind as Krista started the car again and put it into drive.

They followed Dylan's father to Goodland. They went down a desolate road until they arrived at a trailer park. In the middle of the park was a bar and several restaurants. His dad parked the car outside of the bar and got out. They watched him go inside. He didn't even look around to see if someone had seen him. After a couple of minutes, he reappeared on the deck, sitting down by himself at a table with a big red umbrella. A waitress brought him a beer without saying anything. He drank some of it and then he looked at the water behind him as if he didn't have a care in the world.

It was stupid that he had ever believed in the lady in the attic or some kind of boogeyman creeping around their house. Maybe it was like what Krista had said: nothing that people could do was dramatic enough, but when ghosts or monsters did it, then it was suddenly real.

***

On February 28, Dylan walked Ben to school, hesitant to let him go up the building's front steps. On second thought, he figured that Ben would be safe there.

Dylan walked to the high school down the street, lost in his own thoughts.

"So he doesn't even have a job?" Krista had asked him as she stared open-mouthed at Dylan's father casually drinking his beer.

"No," Dylan said. "He's done this before."

"But why?" Krista said. "He can't pull that off forever."

"He's not looking to pull it off forever," Dylan said. "That's what I'm afraid of."

She had looked at him with her dark, luminous eyes that seemed to stare right through him. What he saw there was genuine caring. He wasn't sure the last time he had seen that. His mother cared, but she was always distracted trying to hold everything and everyone together.

Dylan and Krista had gone to the beach to pass the time. They talked about their lives and where they wanted to go after high school. They dreamed about going to live in Arizona or Oregon. Like most people who grow up with a beach at their fingertips, they took it for granted.

When Dylan got to Ben's school to walk him home, he wished that the content of his conversation was all he really had to think about. Walking up the house's front steps, he knew the conversation was as much of an illusion as the lady in the attic.

Dylan had gone upstairs to his room, taking the metal rod and pulling open the entrance to the attic. He released the stairs. They came down with a heavy thud that seemed to echo for several minutes. Dylan waited frozen there like a burglar who had stepped on a creaky board. Then he went back downstairs and took the largest kitchen knife out of the butcher's block. He looked around and listened to the sounds of the house, still certain that his parents weren't home and that Ben was playing in his room like always.

Putting the knife under his pillow, he lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. This was crazy, he thought. Nothing was going to happen. It was just the gossip about the house being haunted that was getting to him. Even as these rational thoughts ran through his mind, he knew that the reality he had envisioned was very real. When he thought of his father now, Dylan saw that this had been the plan since his dad lost his job. His father didn't dream about a nice family and a white picket fence. His father cared about money.

The last time that his father had been caught pretending to work, Ben had told their mother casually at breakfast where their father really was. She didn't believe him until she coincidentally saw his car parked outside of a bar by her work. She had confronted him when he got home, while Ben and Dylan listened upstairs.

"I didn't sign up for this," she had said. "I didn't sign up to support some man who doesn't want to work." Then a pause as an object got moved around the kitchen counter. "I want a divorce. And if you think that you're not paying for child support or Dylan's college, then think again."

Just like that, it had stopped. His father attempted to find a job. Then they had moved to Marco, into the haunted house that they couldn't afford--at least, not for long. His mother returned to working normal hours instead of double shifts at the hospital and Dylan had been free to quit his after-school job at the gas station.

Dylan waited in his room until his parents came home. He went downstairs to dinner and tried to have a normal conversation about school, but everything felt like a lie. When he looked at his father's face, there was a distant, haunted look in his eyes and the dark lines around his mouth were even deeper. Dylan cast a glance at his mother who didn't seem to notice any of the physiological changes in her husband. That's what she was good at doing: pretending that everything was okay until it was too large to ignore.

Tomorrow was February 29th. Dylan kept turning that over and over again as he sat on the edge of his bed with the butcher knife. The house became dark and he never moved. He could still hear the raspy laugh of the lady in the attic, but he pushed that fear aside. He couldn't replace one fear with another.

As the hours passed, he could feel the heaviness of his eyelids. He wanted to lay down and sleep for just a few minutes, but he knew if he did, he wouldn't wake up. His eyelids started to close anyways and then a strange sound from downstairs at the back of the kitchen woke him up. It was like a heavy thud followed by a scream. Dylan sat up and his eyes caught the time on the digital clock next to his bed: 3:33.

Dylan stood up, running to Ben's room, the butcher knife in his left hand. He entered the darkness, trying to find his way around. Finally his eyes adjusted and he could see Ben, his tousled brown hair on his pillow, the sheets pulled up to his chin. Dylan leaned down and shook his shoulder.

"Ben, wake up," he whispered, but the little boy only mumbled. He shook harder. "Wake up!" Ben sat up, confused and on the verge of tears. "Come on. We have to go."

The little boy started to question what was happening and then he got out of bed silently, taking his teddy bear with him. The sight of the bear brought some strange sadness into Dylan's heart, but he pushed it away. He took Ben's free hand and they ran to Dylan's room.

"Go into the attic like the lady said," Dylan said. Ben looked down at him, scared of the ladder leading up into darkness. "I'm right behind you."

When Dylan said this, Ben started climbing faster. Dylan went back into the hallway and he picked up the phone to call the police, the knife in his other hand. A gunshot rang out.

"I think my dad just shot my mom. Please hurry!" he said to the woman on the other line. He gave her his address and then he hung up. Dylan went back to his room and he grabbed the rod and then ascended the staircase. He put the knife and rod down and then pulled the ladder up. Once the entrance was closed, they went to the back of the attic amid some storage boxes.

In the darkness, they could hear footsteps on the staircase. Ben was huddled against Dylan, quietly crying. Dylan held the knife in front of him as he heard his father's footsteps go into Ben's room. They got silent and then he started searching the room.

"It's okay, buddy," they heard him say. "Come on out."

Dylan's heart pounded as he heard the footsteps leave Ben's room and enter his own. They stopped again. In the distance, there was the sound of sirens blaring, getting closer and closer. Dylan looked to the attic window hoping to see the red and blue lights reflecting. They were distant, but getting closer. When he turned away, there was a movement in the darkness, a rustling sound like a woman's dress. Dylan tried to focus on it, but he couldn't until it reached the window.

She stood there, her back to the street, the red and blue lights casting a lurid glow around her head and shoulders. She was creeping closer and then she stretched out her hand. It was the bony hand, gnarled by age that he had seen in his dream. Ben looked up when the rustling sound got closer.

"Are you going to tell us a story?" Ben said, his voice quiet and hopeful.

"Yes. Yes, I am," she said, her hand still extended. "But I don't know if you will like this one."

THE END


© 2017 Susan Savage Lee

Bio: Dr. Susan Savage Lee is a literature and Spanish professor at Webster University. While she is new to publishing fiction, her book reviews and articles have appeared in AlterNative, the Journal of Popular Culture, and Confluencia.

E-mail: Susan Savage Lee

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