The attic was dark and warm. Not a pleasant kind of warmth — the kind of mid-August heat that results in nothing but nausea and misery. The room was stuffy and the ceiling low, which made standing upright impossible. There was one window only, thin and compact, too small to fit through. It faced west so that the mornings were spent drenched in shadow, and only at the mark of noon did even a sliver of light pass into the room. By afternoon the attic would be baking in the summer heat, more light pouring in as the sun went down. Desperately, he’d bring his knees to his chest and huddle in a corner still thick with shadows.
Around this time the children of the house came home. First the boy, a middle schooler based on his speech, which modulated between the bass voice of a man and the squeaky tones of a child. About an hour later came the young girl. He figured she was in elementary school but could be sure of nothing else, other than that her name was Lily.
Every day he heard the pattering of their feet scamper up the staircase and run in his direction. Each time the rumble of their footsteps grew near his heart would drop, though there was no reason for it. The hall beneath him forked at its end, where there were two rooms, both belonging to the children. There, carved into the ceiling and situated right between the two rooms was the attic door. But he needn’t fear their intrusion as neither were yet tall enough to reach.
The only person to be feared was the father, but this attic seemed seldom used. There were only a few boxes stuffed with books and old family photo albums. When he first came, all of it had been wreathed in cobwebs. He thought them odd things to abandon. He had looked through them all by the end of his first full day in the attic, and many bore worn but beautiful memories, remnants of a happy life. He even found a wedding photo. Both bride and groom looked stunning, standing in a grove of cherry trees, their leaves green and full as the two smiled their white smiles. He held it for a long while, staring at the spotless smile of the bride. He wiped the grime from its surface and stared more.
The second day he spent cleaning everything as best he could, swiping away the webs and filth, choking on the dust that floated like smoke into the air. In a corner a large sack lay slumped against the wall, and when he rifled through it, found dozens of stuffed animals. They must have been toys the children had grown tired of and long since forgotten. One of them he studied for a long time. It was an American girl doll, her hair tangled and her clothes spoiled. He wondered if Lily would ever come looking for the doll, but found it doubtful. She likely had several, ones with straightened hair and new, unsullied accessories. He didn’t like to steal, despised it even. But if he got the chance, perhaps he’d take this.
Sunset came at last, and marked his fifth day spent in the attic. His head split from the heat, his clothing damp with sweat, but he learned to find solace in watching the sun descend. He got down on his hands and knees, his head against the floor, and through that slim window watched as the sun went down. The window was too small to see the sky; only a thin line of orange was visible to him. Mostly, however, he watched the ground, reveling in the perfection of the family’s pristine lawn, fresh and green, lined with begonias and azalea bushes. Over the yard long shadows stretched and waned like grasping hands, until all went dark and quiet.
That night he slept beneath golden skies atop hills rolling with green. The sun was warm and the breeze cool, and across the sky blew leaves whisked up from the branches of nearby trees. Warmth drew up against his side, and he was happy.
The next morning he woke to the shuffle of feet and low, whining voices. The world outside was still pitch black, yet it was time for the kids to go to school. Based on the mother’s grumbles, the boy was trying to get a day off. His efforts failed, however, and eventually his voice disappeared from the house. An hour later the parents set out for work, then silence. He had barely heard the little girl, but the silence spoke for her absence.
His stomach growled and he placed a hand on his ribcage. He needed to eat. Even worse, he needed to drink. He had come into the attic with a water bottle attached to his belt, but there was only a trickle left. He took it in his hands and drank its last drops.
The morning was already heating up. He needed to escape today, and for once knew the house was empty. But silence has its own terrors, and comes with a kind of peace one fears to disrupt. One creak of a door or groan of a floorboard is enough to disturb the quiescence, and with that comes an acute feeling of exposure, like that of a naked man watched by invisible eyes. It was that dread which compelled him back to his corner, cowering in that dark, oppressive place that would find him if he moved, so he sat still, breathless.
Yet by noon the suffering proved too great to endure. Hunger, thirst, and scorching heat became forces fear could not overwhelm, and he was shaken from his paralysis. He pressed his ear to the door. Silence. Just waiting to be disturbed. But disturb it he must.
He took the handle with his fumbling, sweaty fingers, but before he left found the American girl doll again. He looked at the toy, almost mesmerized, as he wondered whether to take it with him or leave it on little Lily’s bed. He shivered at the thought of the child seeing him. She’d look at him like the monster under her bed.
It was a funny thing. He had never even seen Lily, yet somehow she reminded him of his own little girl, whom everyday he had bounced on his knee as she played with the finger puppets he wove for her birthday. At night he’d tuck her into bed and sit up late with his wife, cuddling beneath an olive-colored alpaca blanket, sipping tea, staring at the green curtains she had sewn just for him. They were kind gifts, and made for kinder memories.
He pushed the trapdoor open and at last he was liberated. He sighed, breathing in the fresh air, taking a moment to relish in the cool, air-conditioned home. His throat was dry and compelled him forward. He descended the stairwell, surprised by the blare of the television. They must have left it on.
When he reached the ground floor he went immediately to the kitchen and began refilling his water bottle. Across the room he looked up at the giant, wide flat screen playing Spongebob Squarepants. For a few seconds he watched with amusement, then he froze. Eyes. He felt their eyes.
On the couch, quietly tucked up in blankets, a box of tissues in her lap, was the little girl. She stared at him, stock still, her eyes wide as saucers, her lower lip hanging open in horror. Her scream was piercing, just as he had imagined.
The drum of steps on stairs shook him into action. They were coming. He dashed to the backdoor, wrenched it open just as the father made it to the first floor, and streaked across the lawn. A grave oversight, a stupid one too. The little boy must have fussed because his sister was sick, and because of that only one parent had left for work that morning. He couldn’t hear anything from the basement or first floor, and so must have missed it.
He continued running and eventually broke out of the neighborhood and into some backwoods. He’d been seen, and that crime alone would light up headlines across America.
Eventually he stumbled on the root of a tree and couldn’t get back up. Hunger drew into his sides like talons, and now it was taking its toll. His head was spinning, but was aware his hand was now empty. He looked over and saw the American girl doll lying in the grass, the paint on its face scuffed. He couldn’t bear to look at it, and so averted his gaze to the sky. Summer wind blew through the wood, shaking pine needles from the branches of the great trees, falling in their dull, faded green.