Is There Something in the Attic?
by Belinda Rees
As the wind howls and the rain marches its heavy boots across my tiled roof, I huddle in front of the fire. The first of the lightning sizzles through the darkened sky, the stuttering light reflecting off the belly of iron grey thunderclouds. The smell of ozone permeates the air, dampened by the torrential rain.
After the lightning, the thunder crashes to the ground, rattling window panes and perfectly punctuating the beginning of the darkness as the power cuts out.
A fluctuating orange face peers fearfully at me from the mirror above the fireplace. The flickering glow of the crackling fire lends my own face strange new colour and shadowy features. I am afraid. For a moment I feel out of place, as though that face in the mirror does not belong to me. This is not me; I am not that woman peering fearfully at me. The moment passes but the feeling persists.
The rain ends suddenly as though the gods themselves are on water restrictions and there is momentary silence. It's then that I hear the noise. Not the storm, something else. A thump and a thud, as if something has just landed on the roof. Perhaps a lightning struck tree has fallen there? Perhaps if I can convince myself it will be so.
The lightning snaps and the thunder grumbles, the couple declaring irreconcilable differences. The rain begins again, softer, just a light watering for the earth now that all the muck has been washed away.
Lightning flickers across my meagre furnishings, lighting up planes and angles, everything turned into a kaleidoscope of strange images, as if shown from a slide projector with an acute stutter.
A jarring thud from above and a little voice cries "Mama!" from the top of the stairs. I'll have to go -- I suppose that's me. They're standing there in pyjamas, little sleepy faces that turn from the ceiling down to the stairs, as if me climbing them is more important than the second coming. Perhaps to these little creatures that live with me, this is true.
Is there something in the attic they ask? It sure sounds that way, but of course I can't say that, then they might realise I'm as frightened as they are. They're smart that way.
I look up toward the ceiling making a funny face. They giggle, lightning flashes, stuttering across their faces, turning them briefly into fun house monsters. It's school holidays so they've been up late and have had busy days. The little bags under their eyes only serve to heighten the image.
I involuntarily step backwards, away from their eerie faces. I mask the movement by moving closer to the spare room, the one with the trapdoor into the space above the ceiling we generously call the attic. Their little giggles die away, replaced with fear and awe. Is mummy actually going to go up there and check? Well, she can't not, can she? Can she...?
I sigh, the sound covered by the wind which has suddenly picked up and bitten into the side of the house. Something clatters onto the roof. My blood suddenly rushes through my veins, as if realising it is late for an important appointment elsewhere.
Something drops outside the window, something small. Then another, a handful, a bucketful. I creep through the wreckage of a model plane on the floor of Jaye's room. The sky outside the window is a dark, tumultuous grey. Another step towards the window and I can see next door's roof. Another step and I can see their darkened windows. Something drops outside, I jump and the children behind me scream.
Something clatters on the roof again; this time I am ready for it. Besides, I am beginning to suspect the identity of our tormentor. I step up to the window, the children gasp at my boldness. Isn't mummy brave?
I lean against the sill and look out onto the lawn I can't see but know is there. The lawn appears to be a dark velvet sky, peppered with tiny stars. I breathe a contented sigh; I like being right. I turn to the children and explain it is just hail.
The words are barely out of my mouth when something moves above me. Obviously it must be in the attic as I can not see it. Now this one I can't explain away. It's definitely not hail; hail does not have feet to sound footsteps. The children and I watch as it moves, our eyes following its passage as surely as if we could actually see it. Something walks across the ceiling toward the trapdoor.
The children run from the hallway to where I am standing and huddle behind me, hands wrapped around my knees. For a moment I am frozen; is this actually happening? Then I begin to move toward the open door, stiffly as my legs have gained a couple of kid-sized growths. They murmur; they do not seem to want to go and check out the footsteps with me. I don't particularly want to go myself. But I can't say this. Then they might realise that I'm as frightened as they are. They're smart like that.
The footsteps stop and so do I, almost as if I am attached by string to whatever it is in the attic. Something thumps above us. There is silence then, broken only by another spattering of hail stones across the roof. I wait. My attachments wait. The thing in the ceiling waits, if indeed there is one.
I'm undecided. Lightning lights Jaye's room and the hallway like fireworks, the corresponding boom of thunder their explosion. The children glance at me fearfully, and then just as quickly appear appeased. Mummy will take care of it. I suppose that's me.
I swallow the fear the children aren't aware of. The shadows are thicker in the hallway. A flash of lightning reveals the dark space of the open doorway leading to the spare room. Thunder sounds again, further away and with less power than before. Not even the windows rattle this time.
I reach out my hand as I shuffle toward the doorway, the children still attached to my lower legs. They murmur, I don't believe they approve of our approach. I glance down at them.
On my knees I manage finally to convince them to wait in the hallway. There is really nothing to worry about but mummy has to check and make sure none of the tiles under the tree branch have come loose.
What tree branch? Why, the one on the roof making all that racket. What on earth were you expecting -- a monster? I shake my head, as though disappointed that these children of mine have such wild imaginations.
I'm good, I'm real good. I had them looking sheepish. I had them giggling. I had them forgetting they heard footsteps. No mean feat I assure you. Kids don't forget, and they ask the most inopportune questions at the most inopportune times. Not these two. Thank god. What on earth would I have told them?
With the children waiting in the hallway I make my way toward the spare room. I take a step. Two steps. Three. My outstretched hand brushes the painted wooden door. It swings away from me, creaking slowly to a stop against the square of rubber attached to the wall behind the handle.
A flash of lightning illuminates the desk in the corner and the overflowing bookshelves against the wall. The room falls back into shadow, the shuttered window staring blindly at me from across the room.
I glance fearfully around the small square but find nothing out of place. I then turn my attention to the trapdoor in the centre of the ceiling. It is closed, waiting innocently.
I take a step inside. Two steps. Three. I struggle for the fourth. This one will bring me directly beneath the trapdoor. I stand there, staring dumbly up at it. I remember the children are avidly watching from the hallway and look around for something to stand on.
The desk chair will have to do. I turn it over and unclip the rollers -- I wouldn't want to be a bad role model for the children. I tun it right side up and set it down beneath the trap door. I wish for a torch, a hurricane lamp, anything. But we have neither, nothing. I wonder if I will be able to see anything anyway, in the dark. The flashlight from the desk drawer -- for emergencies, not for playing laser swords or making hand shadows -- is dead, or almost dead, the old-fashioned bulb a barely-visible orange spot that fades in seconds.
What little courage I had has suddenly deserted me. My mouth is dry and I am dizzy. I can hardly believe what I am about to do. Before I realise it I am standing on the chair, reaching for the trapdoor, the hands I see before me seem distant; the hands of a stranger. They do not seem like my own.
I push the trapdoor up and slide it over. The whole thing seems surprisingly familiar, even though I have never been into this particular attic. The darkness gapes above me. I drop shakily from the chair to the floor. I wait. I guess I expected something to leap onto my face, clawing and gouging, something wild and insane. I guess, in short, I expected a monster. I receive nothing and for that I am briefly grateful. Although, if something had jumped out the horrible waiting would be over. And I wouldn't have to go up into the ceiling.
The yawning blackness waits. I wonder again if I will be able to see anything up there. Perhaps I should wait until the morning or at least until the power comes on. What's the point of going to investigate if I can't see? Perhaps that is just the fear talking. I wait a moment, expecting something to materialise out of the darkness.
I guess I will have to go up. I make a face. I hear whispered giggles from the hallway. I poke my tongue out; my terror should be amusing for the children.
I step back up onto the chair, the dark hole right in front of my face. I see nothing within. It's just black - darkness there, and so far, nothing more. I place one hand on the edge of the hole, then the other on the other side. My heart beats out the bossa nova, the children are awed but silent spectators. I boost myself up into the attic, one knee resting on the edge until I get my feet beneath me. Now I am standing in that blackness. Would my face be shimmering terror to someone standing beneath the hole as I had been?
I stare longingly at the world below me, feeling like a leper outcast. I sigh, knowing I must poke around in the dark. I glance left and then right, the absolute darkness rendering them indistinguishable. I could not see the hand I held up in front of my face.
Lightning though short-lived brings shadow to the darkness. At least there is enough light to tell there is nothing, I mean no one nearby. The attic is bigger than I realised; there are two corners I can not see from where I am standing.
I feel my way along one of the beams, careful not to put a foot through the ceiling. I would just have to hope lightning struck while I was at the other end of the large room so I could search it. Surely though if there is something, I mean someone up here they would have shown themselves by now?
I shuffle along toward the far corner, feeling my way with my foot as I go, trying to keep to the beams. I expect them to change in the centre and I'm not disappointed. I feel the change and accommodate it.
Halfway to the corner I kick something. It shifts in the dark, falling into another position with a rustling thump. The pulse points in my throat pound as I stop. For a moment I am paused mid-step unsure of what to do next.
Blood rushes through my chest, my heart pounding it furiously through my veins. I begin to crouch, trembling hand out-stretched toward the ground. Lower, lower, until my reaching fingers brush against something soft, something firm.
In the sudden whiteness of lightning I see it. As darkness stutters back in and thunder grumbles childishly in response I scuttle backwards, away from the thing on the floor. Away from the thing in my attic. The motionless figure makes no sound but I imagine it dragging itself towards me in the dark. Those cold, stiff fingers reaching for me in the dark, as I had reached for it. I begin to shudder and can not stop. A quick flash reveals the form unmoved, and then all is swallowed by the darkness.
There is a dead woman in my ceiling. Her body core is still warm; she has not been dead long. Was it her footsteps we heard as she shuffled her last dying steps toward the trapdoor?
A noise. A noise from the far corner. It sets my heart racing again as I try to identify the sound. Something clattered, as if someone had dropped a handful of marbles. Or perhaps the tapping of some creature's killing claws? The sharp points dripping blood. No. I refuse to believe that.
But what should I believe? What killed that woman, if not a monster? Yes, I tell myself, a monster, but a human monster. My fear is supernatural, a human monster I can handle, it's the unknown that has my heart knocking against my chest.
Right. Now. To investigate. Nothing's worse than not knowing what you're dealing with. Now it's time to find out what is in the attic. Aside from a dead woman. I spare her a glance as I creep past her.
Ahead in the right hand corner something is wrong. I stop. I try to decide what is wrong. I can't put my finger...wait. Yes, I can. It's grey. The corner is grey instead of black. But what does it mean?
I creep forward, hunched over, as the roof begins to taper down to the eaves. Something crunches under my foot and I freeze, precariously balanced with one foot directly in front of the other along the beam. I realise now. There is an opening in the roof, there are some tiles missing and a little light is coming in from outside.
I relax and move the crunching foot. I feel along the sole and find the cold icy granules of what used to be a piece of hail. Not marbles then.
Did the killer bring his victim in through there and then leave the same way once she was dead? But why? Lightning splinters the sky, a few seconds of intense pulsating light and the jagged pieces are joined together with darkness once again.
There does not seem to be anyone around. I glance quickly into the other corner I could not see before, just as lightning cracks again and reveals that it is empty.
I am confused, what now? The answer to the question -- is there something in the attic -- is yes, and no. There is a body but no murderer. I turn away from the hole in the roof. I let the air out of my lungs. Again, what now?
I suppose I should go downstairs and call the police. Tell them about the body. Lightning stutters again, flickering across the dead woman's face. Wait. What was that? I think I know her. She looks very familiar.
I gingerly move towards her, following the beams. She lies across one of the ceiling panels, her knees bent over one beam, her neck resting on another, leaving her head to hang awkwardly on the other side.
I approach, my form shadowing her torso. As lightning streaks through the sky again her face is fully revealed. In shock I sit, luckily landing on a beam and not a plasterboard panel. For a moment the electricity in my brain is switched off. I am numb. In the darkness I stare at her face, even though I can no longer see it. Her face...my god. This can't be right. She has my face.
Hail spills into the attic behind me, a couple of pieces pinging my back. I hunch forward peering into the shadowy face in front of me. Lightning flickers, her dead eyes stare directly into mine in the ensuing whiteness. Her pupils do not change. I jump back, and a whoosh of air expels quickly from my lungs. I am shaking and gasping. What does this mean?
The dead woman in the attic is...is...me. But I am not dead. I am not dead. I spoke to the children, I touched them. I was downstairs as this woman stepped across the ceiling - as she was dying. Unless...unless that wasn't her... surely the killer would have come out by now. I am sitting here defenceless; surely no killer could ignore that. Besides, that does not explain how she is me and I am her.
What do I remember of this evening? That seems a good place to start. I was downstairs, sitting in front of the fire. I hear a noise upstairs and go to investigate. I pull out the desk chair and open the trapdoor in the ceiling. No, wait. That's not right.
The children, I saw the children. No. It happened as I remembered it just now, and the lights. The lights were on. But that's not right. I realise I am shaking my head in the darkness. I am arguing with myself, my mind aching with it. No, it's not right. The lights were out and the children called to me. That's what happened. That's how it was. But still this memory insists. No children, lights on.
I climb into the attic. I see...I see...the blonde woman climbing into the attic. What? What blonde woman? The only blonde woman who climbed into the attic is me. I am the blonde woman. My mind is confused; I could not have watched myself climb into the attic.
Her face close to me, light spilling up from the room below. Shock; she/I do not know what I am seeing. Wait. There is an explanation. I know there must be. Everything is as it should be, but how and why? I feel these memories are real, but how does it all fit together? Nothing makes sense. Wait. Something's coming to me. I know.
I laugh. I know how it all fits, the pieces are falling into place and I am remembering. The blonde woman. She was sitting downstairs. She heard a noise in the attic and came up to investigate. The storm had just begun to rage outside, lightning and thunder a distant rumble.
The blonde woman climbed into the attic. Light was spilling up from below. I remember her doing it, but those are not my memories, they are hers. She was afraid, afraid for herself. Afraid for her children.
I do not understand this feeling.
The hands I hold up in front of my face do not belong to me. They do not look the way they normally look. They look like her hands. I look like her, I have her memories, her voice, but I am not her. I am something else. I look how I want to look, I am not locked to one shape.
The blonde woman climbed into the attic. Light was spilling up from below.
And I...I was here waiting.
Downstairs. Now the children are waiting. I must not disappoint them.
© 2010 Belinda Rees
Bio: Belinda Rees is a denizen of Perth, Australia, where she lives with her partner and their two dogs. She works as a personal assistant when not immersed in World of Warcraft, and has been writing for her own amusement (mostly) for about ten years. This may be her first published story (unless she has been published since December 2009?).
E-mail: Belinda Rees
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