When she played in the garden with her little sister, Gemma had to glimpse at the attic windows every two minutes. There were four high narrow windows in the eastern wing of the manor, exactly above Gemma’s bedroom. And there was somebody in there.
No matter how fast she was, she caught the movement only with the corner of her eye. Every time she looked directly, there was nothing, only the reflection of the clouds in the sky or a glint of sunshine. Her sister didn’t see anything, but then Rosie was only five. But Gemma knew there was someone… some-thing in there. Watching her.
In the evening, when she tried to fall asleep, she could hear someone walking above her head, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, sometimes just a thump-thump accompanied by a squeaking that seemed successively near and far.
Sometimes Gemma would call Mum.
“I can’t hear a thing,” Mum would say after a minute of deep silence. “Maybe it’s the rats.” And when she tucked Gemma in, Mum would add, “Stop reading scary stories before you go to bed.”
Of course, Mum would say that. But that was because Mum didn’t know. Mum never heard the footsteps. It was as if whoever was in the attic knew when Mum was there and stopped. The moment she was gone, the pacing resumed furiously, as if in anger, the creaking of the floorboards so heavy sometimes that Gemma was afraid the ceiling would crack. On those nights, not even two pillows over her head helped her fall asleep.
“There’s nothing in that attic,” Mum said one day, holding Gemma’s chin in her hand, her eyes worriedly examining her face. “Maybe some old dolls of your Grandmama’s,” she said smiling, “or some ball dresses of your Grandaunt’s Rebecca…” Gemma knew that Aunt Rebecca, her grandmother’s older sister had disappeared when she was eighteen, but nobody found out if she had eloped with one of the handsome officers or had drowned in the march. Gemma was staying in her old bedroom, the most beautiful room in the house. “Come, darling, we’ll take a look together.”
Gemma clutched Mum’s hand all the way up the dark, narrow, winding flight of stairs at the end of the corridor. The air was stale yet the flame from the lamp Mum was holding flickered wildly. Gemma tried not to look at the shadows on the walls. She tried to think only of the sunny, bright afternoon outside, and of all the new blooms in the garden. Her heart jumped when she heard Mum exclaim,
“What is this? I don’t understand…”
The door to the attic was boarded with thick wood planks. And for good measure, a few more had been nailed to the first layer. Mum touched the planks as if still expecting to have a door there that she could open.
Gemma sat on the floor and put her right cheek and ear to the wood, her palms spread on the dusty smooth surface. The wood smelled of an herb, a sweet, nauseating smell, or maybe that was just how old wood smelled.
Then she heard it.
The raspy breathing. Waiting. Right behind the boarded door. Gemma knew Mum had heard it too from Mum’s sharp gasp right before she dropped the lamp. Oil spilled from it before Mum could pick it up and it caught fire, but Mum stepped on it quickly, almost setting fire to her skirts.
“Oh, God,” Mum said, taking a step back. “We could burn up here.” She grabbed Gemma’s shoulders, pulling her up. A black stain on the wood planks still fumed where the fire had lived shortly.
Behind the boarded door, something started squeaking.
“Is there someone in there?” Mum said, her voice clear and just a little shaky. The squeaking stopped.
Mum raised her hand and knocked on the wood planks.
An inhuman shriek rose in response and a blast shook the door so hard a few nails snapped loose. Cold, musty air brushed their faces out of nowhere.
Gemma and Mum threw themselves down the stairs, hand in hand, legs catching in their skirts, in peril of breaking their necks. They only stopped downstairs, in the hall, with the white marble shining in the afternoon sun.
“You will sleep with me tonight,” Mum said, holding Gemma tight, kissing the top of her head, again and again. “Tomorrow Peter will get some boys from the stables and they will open that door.”
But Gemma didn’t think that would be a good idea. She had an idea of her own.
Nobody knew what started the fire on the upmost floor of the eastern wing, in Gemma’s bedroom, but they all stood and watched safely from the garden, in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, Gemma and Rosie had been with Mum at the time. Or Gemma most of the time. The valets and the maids stood ready to intervene at Mum’s orders, but there was little chance the fire would spread below to the stone structure. The attic though, which, together with the bedroom below, was a late wooden addition to the old manor, was already ablaze.
Gemma watched the dark shadow at the windows, for once not eluding her, illuminated by the flames, and then she watched the windows explode under the overwhelming heat. Flames and smoke burst out, but from within them, Gemma saw a darker smoke emerge, a narrow, twisting, pitch black bundle of smoke, that rose spinning quickly as if with purpose then disappeared into the pink sunrise sky.
This week at Woven Dreams, Geraldine wants us to think about attics…