The sun glinted off the polished headstones and the unseasonable heat caused her dress to stick to the back of her knees on the mid October afternoon that Stacy buried her grandmother. The service lasted about fifteen minutes with only Stacy and a neighbor of Nana’s standing graveside. Time, distance and death had withered her family away and Stacy was all that was left.
Two hours later she found herself surrounded by the detritus that collects around 80 years of life. Stacy needed to clean out Nana’s house and the job felt insurmountable. Not because of the workload, but because each knick-knack, picture or paper she found brought back memories, most of them happy. But it was her responsibility, and besides, being with her grandmother’s things this weekend was more of a goodbye than 15 minutes at grave site ever could be. She owed her that much.
The house was one of those tight, five room jobs built right after WWII. Her grandparents bought it in the late 60’s and Stacy had visited often as a child, much less lately. It had somehow been a bigger place when Papa filled these rooms, but a massive heart attack almost 20 years ago robbed Stacy of him. He died on the factory floor three weeks before his retirement. Since then the small house seemed even smaller.
She had found a charity willing to take all the furniture and they were scheduled to pick up everything on Monday. She planned to sort through everything else this weekend. Going through the house was one thing, but the real work would be in the attic. Not least because she really didn’t want to go up there. Especially not alone. Attics were possibly her least favorite location. Well, attics and graveyards, and since she already braved the latter she figured she might as well tackle the former. Knowing she’d dread the job until it was done she determined to start up there.
A small access door in the ceiling of the spare bedroom closet offered the only entrance, but there were no retractable stairs- just a trap door that hinged up. Dragging a step ladder from the kitchen behind her with one hand, flashlight in the other, Stacy went to the closet. Being a guest room, only a few coats and old dresses that she could never remember her grandmother having worn hung lazily from the single bar.
Pushing the clothes aside she went to move the ladder under the access door, but jumped back and screamed when she saw the dead mouse lying on the floor directly beneath the door.
“It’s just a mouse, get a hold of yourself,” she spoke into the emptiness, waiting for her heart rate to slow back to normal.
The dead mouse could not have been there long as its little body was still plump, not the dried-out husk one would find if it had died last spring. Lying on its side, its one visible eye lay open, staring up at her. The skin around the eye had begun to recess leaving the impression that the eye itself was bulging out of the socket, almost as if it were pleading with her about something.
“I’ll deal with you later,” she said throwing an old floral dish towel over the corpse like cheap department store shroud.
After moving the ladder in place she climbed up and took a deep breath. “Now or never.” She pushed up, but the door didn’t budge. The humid summers and freezing cold winters of western Massachusetts meant wood often became a living thing- growing and shrinking with the weather. Lifting one leg to a higher step for leverage, she gave the door a hard shove.
“Dammit!” The door moved, but she also scraped the side of her left palm on the edge of the roughed in door frame.
The side of her hand looked like road rash; the blood already weeping up to the surface through the abrasion. At least the seal on the door broke and the door creaked up two to three inches. Slowly, using her uninjured hand, she fought against the unwilling hinges, finally wining the battle of wills to get the door fully open. She put her head through, turned on the flashlight and looked around.
Her flashlight’s meager beam fought against the palpable darkness. “Maybe this isn’t such a great idea,” she thought. But it was already four in the afternoon, if she didn’t get some of this cleared out soon Friday would be wasted. And the light was starting to fade. The thought of being there alone at night spurred her on.
Checking her flashlight for the second- or was it third- time she crawled through the small doorway and into the attic. She saw no windows, openings or even cracks letting in any light. The only help her $3.00 Walmart flashlight had was the soft glow coming from the open trap door. Lifting herself up and fully in she saw that she could stand in the center under the roof’s peak, but only because she was 5’3”.
There was no floor, just evenly spaced joist beams with dirty, pink insulation tucked between. Balancing on the beams she made her way down to the left, her flashlight searching the blackness. Despite her initial nervousness she saw just what she expected. Boxes. Lots of boxes. Some taped shut, other older ones with string crisscrossing them. The thick layer of dust over everything belying the fact that these had not been touched for years. Probably just old Christmas decorations and the extra sets of dishes found in most people’s attics. “Nothing to be afraid of,” she told herself.
As the beam of her flashlight speared ahead, one item caught her eye as it was not quite as dust-covered. It reflected her light with a cloudy, milky beam of its own. Peering into the gloom she spied a large, framed photo. She could see three people through the dust on the glass, but it was a little hard to make out. Stacy took her sleeve and wiped down the image to get a clearer look- it was her grandparents when they were quite young. She’d recognize Nana’s lopsided grin anywhere. They couldn’t be much more than 20 years old, and with them was a little girl, maybe three. They sat together on a bench in what appeared to be a park of some kind, balloons floating in the background.
Her grandparents were laughing at something off to the right of the camera, but the little girl stared straight at Stacy, unsmiling, expressionless. He hands clasped tightly in her lap around a single flower that looked more strangled then held.
She wasn’t sure who this was. Her own mother had been her grandparent’s oldest child and this picture was clearly earlier. Nana had been 32 when mom was born. So, who was this little girl? Just as she was wondering this her cheap flashlight gave out, plunging the attic into semi-darkness. “Crap, crap, crap,” she muttered while flipping the switch on and off in rapid succession. She couldn’t see much of anything now, the trap door being 20 feet behind her.
Trying to keep her mounting anxiety under control, she frantically banged the flashlight against her leg hoping to get just a bit more juice from the batteries.
Then she heard a thump. Not terribly loud, but terribly close.
Her panic overflowed and she screamed, the sound dying in the cramped quarters. Her heart beating a drum solo in her ears, the flashlight suddenly came back to life. In its dull, yellowy light she saw the photo frame had fallen off the box upon which it had sat. The dust particles shimmering in the light’s beam pointed to where the frame had fallen- face down between two floor joists, resting on the ancient insulation.
She reached down to lift the image back into place. “What the hell?” Was this even the same picture? Her grandparents were sitting on the park bench, still smiling, still laughing, but alone. Maybe Stacy got disoriented in the dark and was looking at a different picture?
Then a loud bang echoed behind her and she spun around, too startled to keep her balance on the thin beams upon which she stood. Trying to compensate for her quick turn she ended up rolling her ankle over the beam and heard more than felt the snap as she tumbled down, her head slamming into a joist beam.
For an eternity that lasted only seconds she lay there in the dark. The flashlight had scattered in the fall; its batteries failing for good. Ankle throbbing and head pounding, her mind a temporary blank from the blow to her head, she struggled to regain focus.
Where the hell had the little girl gone? What was that bang? Did I really see that? The thoughts shot through her renewed consciousness like staccato gunfire. “I need to get the hell out of this attic.”
But her thoughts were the only things moving at this moment, because her body couldn’t. Her brain yelled “GET OUT” but her muscles wouldn’t respond. No, she was frozen in a fear she’d never felt.
That’s when she heard it. A small child giggling, or singing. She couldn’t really tell; it was the aural version of a memory right on the edge of one’s mind. Familiar yet distant. But it was there.
And that proved to be the cure for fear-induced paralysis. Gathering her arms under her torso she heaved herself up onto her hands to get her bearings, and instantly learned what the bang had been. The hinges must’ve given out on the trap door. The only illumination the sliver of light fighting its way around the edges of the closed door. She may as well have been blind.
She started to pull herself along the floor beams, her bad foot dragging between, bumping along through the insulation below. Fear numbed the pain. She had one thought, “Get out NOW.”
Inch by inch she pulled herself along the beams. The exertion shook lose a single drop of sweat from her brow and she suddenly realized how hot it was up here. Her clothes clung to her damp skin yet she shivered. The tiny hairs on her arms felt like they were raising up in a miniature defensive posture.
She pulled on.
The rhythmic dripping of sweat onto the beam below punctuated each labored pull. She stayed focused on the single line of light and made her way closer. Five feet from her destination, the light extinguished.
Something blocked it. Something right in front of her.
A little girl’s voice. “Peek-a-boo. I see you!”