Things in the Attic (short story)
She pulled the ladder down from the ceiling, cringing as it groaned in protest. The general rule for sneaking into the attic in the middle of the night was to be as quiet as possible, but she wasn’t practiced at it, and the ladder wasn’t aligned with her mission. No matter – her parents were pretty sound sleepers and generally preoccupied anyway. She pumped her foot on the bottom step to make sure it would hold her weight. Once she felt it was secure, she placed a flashlight in her mouth and shimmied her way into the ceiling, shuffling across patches of insulation and strategically placed floorboards, stray nails, cobwebs, and things that crawl. God, how she hated that attic.
The storm had woken her – a large blast of thunder that shook the whole house – but it was her grief that kept her awake. Something strange happens when death takes up residence in your home; the atmosphere somehow becomes thicker – heavier – and everyday movements feel like you’re doing them through water. Even mundane chores like taking out the garbage require a new level of effort. She was learning about the strangeness of it all, like how she could be exhausted and wide awake at the same time. Maybe that’s what death does; it forces some kind of juxtaposition of contrasting things: all of your greens are framed by reds, you’re hungry but you don’t want to eat, and you’re alive but you wish you were dead.
She swung her flashlight in an arc to clear away spider webs. In the middle of the night, the sounds of the house were more pronounced, and even more so from the silent attic – the hollow plunk of rain hitting gutters, the whirring start of the sump pump kicking in. It felt like a lifetime had passed since she was a girl scout, but, even so, she counted the seconds between flashes of lightning and clashes of thunder. What was the point of that anyway? It was clear the storm was on top of the house and not happening miles away.
Her beam stopped on half-torn boxes, plastic bins, and large shapes covered in protective cloths. Flares of lightning lit the attic in wholesale flashes. As a little girl, she would have been frightened by what could have been hiding under the cloths or behind the boxes – by what might be watching her from the darkest corners of the room.
Another crash of thunder rattled the things in the attic and shook the floorboards under her slipper-covered feet. She moved the beam from one cloth-covered mountain shape to the next. Her parents had a tendency to hold onto things long past their due. We bury our people in the ground and their things in the attic in this family, she thought. She made her way past tall vertical stacks of newspapers and magazines and found the specific cloth-covered mountain she was looking for.
She hunched over to avoid the beams in the ceiling and waddled towards a tall, thin shape covered by a white sheet. It was easy to spot not because of its size and figure but because the white sheet was the cleanest in the attic – not yet aged or concealed by dust or cobwebs; her light appeared to bounce off of it when she found it. As she approached it and raised her hand to reach for it, she considered her horror if a hand were to reach back at her. She scoffed at the idea but shrank back with the slamming of another sharp crash of thunder.
“Oh my God, Ash, get it together,” she whispered to herself. She reached back for the cloth and tore it away in one motion, revealing her grandmother’s antique cheval mirror. It looked just as she remembered it – standing tall and proud with its clouded glass mirror plate secured in its mahogany frame. Looking into it now, she could have just as well been a little girl again wearing her grandmother’s rose-colored shoes and pink scarves. A smile formed with the memory and began to quiver. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes and her throat swelled with sadness at the realization that her grandmother no longer and never again would stand behind her in its reflection. She knew that, but somehow seeing her solitary figure gave her a felt sense of that loss – something that she would later struggle to find the words to express to her friend Val. She would have begun to sob if not for becoming distracted by seeing herself cry in the reflection of the mirror. The loss of her grandmother was her first real confrontation with death, and it became something she had to wrestle with – negotiating how much she allowed herself to experience her own sense of mourning and how much she allowed others to see her grief.
She wiped at her eyes with her wrists, noting that her hands were covered in dirt and grime. Rain continued to rail at the roof above her, and somehow in this moment, she felt all right. She uncovered another one of death’s strange juxtapositions; the most normal she felt in the three days following her grandmother’s death came during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night as she sat on a cracked plywood board in the attic by her grandmother’s old mirror. The realization reminded her of something she had just read on a message board for New Agers. Someone had posted something along the lines of saying that with all forms of art, we try to create externally what we feel internally. As a little girl, she was forced into piano lessons by her mom, and she approached the instrument with the same excitement she had when she was given a bag of socks on her ninth birthday. “Well, you need them,” her mom had assured her. What she really wanted was to play guitar in a punk band. But her mom had a way of silencing those aspirations with her scoffs, eye rolls, and the scripted, “Ashley, please.” So, maybe her real calling was in performance art. She made sure to make a mental note of that as a point of discussion for drama class.
Alas, she found what she was looking for – an item connected to the person she lost, which also happened to be a mirror (the second thing she needed), and a quiet space to try to contact the dead undisrupted. She sat down with her legs folded and placed herself in front of the mirror with the flashlight shining upwards from the ground. In that position, she could see her face reflected in the mirror and not much else. Following the instructions from the website, she began the process with an invitation for spirits to reveal themselves to her.
She rested her hands in her lap and allowed herself to relax. With her eyes closed, she took a deep breath and stated her intention, “I am here to speak with my grandmother. I will only receive messages from her. I will not see, hear, or acknowledge any other spirits.” With her intention stated, she opened her eyes and gazed upon her reflection in the mirror.