It is stifling in the attic, the rafters packed with heat in the late afternoon. As I struggle to pull up the ladder and close the hatch, I take a gulp of air, panicking that I won’t be able to breathe up here. I slide the latch home and now the hatch is invisible from below, just another panelled piece in the ornate bedroom ceiling.
I cross the attic floor, stepping softly from joist to joist, towards the single dormer window. There is a surprising amount of head-height up here. The Victorians knew how to build a house, not wide, but tall. In those days, before the skyscrapers started fighting each other for a piece of the sky, the air above your head was free. I open the window the smallest crack — I don’t think it’s visible from below, but I don’t want to take any chances. A trickle of fresh air creeps in, and the papery smell of dry dust is briefly mixed with the sweet scent of cut grass and the sharp, oily tang of barbecue starter-fluid. The thwunk-thwunk-thwunk of a lawn sprinkler gives rhythm to the cries and shouts of the neighborhood children. Not my children, of course. Never mine.
I listen for footsteps below, but there is silence. I had hit him, hit him hard, and then I ran, knowing what was likely to come next. I ran to the bedroom, locked the door and grabbed the old pole we use to open the attic hatch. With a swift, practiced stab of the pole, I released the spring-loaded catch and pulled down the ladder. It slowed me down, but I made sure to bring the pole up into the attic with me.
Through the perpetual motion of dust motes slowly turning in a slice of sunlight, I see the small picture frame just poking out from behind the eaves. I hid it there when we first moved to this house and told him the movers lost it — he seemed to believe me. Behind the glass, the newspaper cutting is yellowed, its edges nibbled and foxed with the passing years. The headline reads:
Children’s Home Scandal: Employee Convicted on Murder and Abuse Charges
I first saw it hanging on the wall in his bachelor apartment, back when we started dating. I knew who he was, of course, who his family were. The whole town did.
“Why would you keep this?” I had asked.
He shrugged. “He was my father. He was a good father.”
“But those things he did…”
“No one knows a family from the outside,” he had said, “and no one can stop a family from loving one another, no matter what they do. I need to remind myself every day of the good things he did for me.”
As he kissed me, his hand around the back of my neck, his thumb pressed softly in the hollow just behind my ear, I thought, despite everything: I’d like a family like that. A family where being on the inside is a safe place to be, whatever happens. With his mother dead by her own hand and his father in jail, he was just like me — alone. Any family is better than none. That’s what I thought.
I feel faint and my head hurts — the heat must be getting to me. I sink to the floor under the attic window. I can’t hear any footsteps below, can’t hear the thud of his shoulder against the bedroom door. Maybe I hit him harder than I thought. Maybe all those years of not hitting back had combined to give me a strength I shouldn’t have had. There is blood on my fingers, blood and something else, something spongy. Is it his blood or mine? I try to remember.
“You will not abort my child,” he had said, his hand in my hair, low, pulling back to raise my face to his, my head bouncing off the corner of the kitchen cabinet. I gasped then laughed, surprising myself as much as him.
“Why not?” I asked, “I got rid of all the others, why not this one too?”
He let go of me, his arms falling to his sides, his mouth slack with shock. I should have run then, but finding him suddenly, finally, on the back foot was exhilarating.
“Better that they die before they even know they are alive, than be born for you to kill them later.” The words had barely left my lips when he had me by the hair again, my back pressed to the kitchen counter, his face closing in on mine.
“I’m no child killer,” he said, his breath whisky-sour.
“No,” I said, “that’s right. Your father killed them, so no one would find out what you did with them first. That’s how it worked, right?” Before he could answer, I pulled my arm around and hit him full in the head with the jar of sauce my groping hand had found on the counter. And that’s when I ran.
I look again at the blood on my fingers and wonder if it is actually pasta sauce. But the jar didn’t break. And I still feel faint. Faint and cold. I touch my hand to the back of my head, and it is warm and wet and soft where it should be hard, where there should be bone. I think maybe I should get up, but my legs don’t seem to want to support me anymore. I slide down further and rest my ear against the floor that is also a ceiling and hope to hear the reverberations of movement downstairs. There are none. My eyes rest on the pole, the old pole, the pole that opens the secret hatch.
I can’t get up.
The sun moves away and the street outside is quiet now. All quiet but for the thwunk-thwunk-thwunk of a lawn sprinkler. And in my ears, the thump-thump-thump of my ever-slowing heart.
Rachael Dunlop is an award-winning writer of both short stories and flash-fiction, and a serial starter of novels – she has an extensive collection of first chapters. Her stories have been published in various anthologies, including 33 West (Limehouse Books) and The Tipping Point (Rubery Press). Despite living in a very big house, she has given up on having a room of her own and seeks the Muse from her kitchen table.