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                   Attic Stranger

                                                                 Lance and Emily Ballard

 

The feel of death still possessed the house, every wall—every inch.  But it was the bedroom where Tom sensed it most.  Especially the bed.

     He reached for the pillow and cradled it to his chest, as if it were his last dance with Marcy; the faint scent of her perfume still trapped within the silk threads of the pillowcase—as were the splatters of blood.  Her blood. 

     Blood that was now three weeks dry.

     Marcy had left work early on the day that was her last and came home to get things ready for Sammy’s birthday party, her and Tom’s only son, a bright boy with soft gray eyes and a thick head of curly brown hair, streaked honey gold from the sun.  But the sun fell behind a murderous cloud when Marcy unlocked the door, unaware of what waited inside, what had found the unlocked window, and what was beyond anything that could ever be considered human.

     The first blow hit Marcy quick, knocking her to the floor—

     Blood flowing in a steady stream down the nape of her tanned neck, lightly doused with Chanel No. 5. 

     She lost consciousness when the hammer was yanked out.  And for good reason.  The second blow shattered the back of her skull, spraying blood onto the walls and bed.

     Then Marcy was dragged to kitchen, laid out on the cold terra cotta titles, and head sawed off with a hack saw—taken for a keepsake. 

     This how Tom found her.  What was left. 

     By the time Sammy arrived home from school, (driven by the chauffeur) a swarm of Oklahoma City’s finest had secured the house with yellow CRIME SCENE tape, holding back neighbors and on-lookers who lusted for a glimpse—any glimpse—inside the Jacob house.  A house nothing much happened in.  Until now. 

     Sammy didn’t understand who lay under the sheet, the gurney being wheeled out the house, to the ambulance.  All he knew was that something had happened. Something bad. 

     And that his mother was not there to explain.  Tom tried, but couldn’t bring himself to speak the truth.  Not to Sammy.  Not his only son who had just started the fourth grade; always bringing home abstract art work, proudly placed on the fridge with tiny lettered magnets.  These were what Marcy had taught Sammy how to spell with. 

     After the funeral, no more art work decorated the fridge because Tom, for not stepping up to the plate and saying the truth, had Sammy convinced that his mother had simply just gone away for awhile—an extended vacation, as Tom had said, and that all the art work should be saved for when she came back.  Tom hated himself for this, but he just couldn’t take the chance on seeing Sammy fall to pieces if he actually knew what had really happened.  So, the Vacation Lie was what Tom used each time Sammy asked.  But the lie also worked its falseness on Tom.  There were moments he, too, thought the lie was true, that Marcy would be home soon, filling the house with love once again and proudly displaying Sammy’s art work on the fridge.

     A sicken wave washed over Tom, tossing the pillow aside.  His own lie had kept him spellbound within days of old and how they would soon turn new again.  But as always, Tom knew the end result: Marcy was dead…and her killer—still on the lose.

     Tears flowed, and Tom fell to the floor—the same place Marcy’s blood had stained the carpet.  Forever.

     Sammy’s head slowly peered around the lip of the door.  He had been there the whole time, something he did more than his father knew.

     “You ok, Daddy?” Sammy asked, coming in and kneeling down by his father—and the stain.

     Tom’s eyes were red and swollen.  “Yeah,” he lied.  “I’ll be fine.”

     “Heard from Mommy, yet?” Sammy held his father’s hand.

     Tears were on the rise again, but Tom wasn’t about to let them spill.  “Not yet,” he said.  “But soon.”  The lie had surfaced again.  “Real soon, Sammy.”

     “Hope so,” he said.  “ ‘Cause I’m tired of coming home and seeing that policeman always parked by our house.” 

     Tom had requested extra security.  With his re-election Champaign for mayor about to get in full swing, Oklahoma City’s finest obliged the request. 

     “It’s not the same policeman, Sammy,” Tom said.  “But I understand.  I’m tired of it, too.”  The fear of the killer sneaking back in the house was too strong for Tom to have it any other way.  He needed the black and white squad car out there.  Needed to know it was there when Sammy went to bed each night.

     Tom got up, his emotions in check.  “Let’s go downstairs and eat.” He was back

to being strong, back to looking like his Champaign picture—a sturdy shoulder that could balance the world.  But that sturdiness was shaken as he and Sammy entered the kitchen, walking on the same terra cotta titles where Marcy’s head had been— 

     Tom’s mind kept shooting quick flashes of how it was done.

     Numbness crept up.

     A staggering vibe—but Tom caught himself before his balance gave way.

     “Go in the fridge,” he told Sammy.  “and grab some veggies.” 

     “We’re out of Coke,” he said, holding the empty 3-liter container.

     “Just bought that the other day,” Tom said.  “You need to cut down, Sammy.”

     “Only had two glasses,” he said, eyeing the misty, wet 3 liter.  “Haven’t touched the stuff since yesterday.”

     Tom took the empty Coke container and threw it in the trash.  “No big deal,” he said, smiling.  “Can always get more.”  He walked over to Sammy.   “Now, how about those veggies.”

     They were got and dinner was made, a special pasta salad Marcy had coined.  Sammy’s favorite.

     “Wish Mommy was here with us,” he said, staring off into space.

     The lie wasn’t somewhere Tom wanted to go.  “C’mon,” he said. “It’s late and you’ve got school tomorrow.”

     Covers were pulled back, and Sammy slid in.  “Will you read to me, Daddy?”

     Tom usually did.  But not tonight. Speeches had to be gone over.  “Got too

much—“

     “—Work,” Sammy said.  “I know.”

     Tom hated this part, the part that came with being a politician, the certain neglect it brought Sammy. 

     “But I’m free, tomorrow,” Tom said.  “And I’ll read to you then.”  He was at the light- switch.  “Sleep good.”  The lights went out, and the door slowly closed, Tom locking the deadbolt from the other side, another safety precaution.  No chance could be taken with Marcy’s killer still on the prowl.

     Darkness swarmed around Sammy; his lungs became heavy as he heard his father footsteps fade away on the staircase. 

     A creak from within the closet pierced the darkness. 

     Then another.

     And another.

     Sammy’s room also lead to the attic, the ladder in the closet.

     Faded leather work boots were on the last rung, mud caked.

     The closet door open.

     A shadow stealthily walked towards.

     “I’ll read to you,” the shadow said, flicking a lighter in quick bursts.  “Whatever you want.”  The shadow sat beside Sammy on the bed.

     Sweat beaded across his brow and his pulse quickened. 

     The shadow said,  “Don’t be scared,” moving closer. 

     “I want my mommy.”  Sweat trickled down Sammy’s neck.

     “Well,” the shadow said.  “I know where she’s at.”

     “Really?” Sammy sat up.

     The shadow smiled.  “Yes.”  Decay infected teeth.  “Yes, I do.  She’s close.  Real close.”

     “Then let me see her.” Sammy smiled.  Perfect teeth.

     “Wish I could,” the shadow said.  “But I can’t.”

     “Why?”  Sammy’s smile faded.

     “Just can’t, that’s why.” The shadow moved closer.  “Would ruin the game.”

     “What game?”

     “The game with the police.”

     “Are you one of ‘em?”

     The shadow’s smile had returned.  “Yes.”  Greasy hair framed cunning eyes.  “Yes, I am.  How do you think I got in your attic?”

     “Was wondering that,” Sammy said, relaxed and unafraid.  “But why are you in there?”

     “To keep watch over you.”  The shadow wiped away sweat from Sammy’s brow.

“Close watch.”

     “But why?”

     “All part of the game.” The shadow pulled back.  “See, with your daddy being mayor and believing in the death sentence—“

     “What’s that?” Sammy asked.

     “Something bad.”

     “Bad?”

     “Oh, yeah,” the shadow said.  “Real Bad,” then came memories of watching the shot of lethal injection course through brother Billy’s veins. Mayor Tom Jacob’s vote had kept the death sentence active in Oklahoma. 

     “But what’s my mommy got to do with all that,” Sammy said.  “She’s not bad.”

     The shadow remembered how easily her head came off.  “But she thinks your daddy and what he does for a living is, and is teaching him a lesson by staying away.”

     “So, if Daddy stops doing his job, Mommy will come home?”

     “Yep,” the shadow lied, cunning eyes narrowing.

     “Then, I’ll talk to Daddy about his job.”

     “Better not,” the shadow said.  “Not just yet.”

     “When then?” Sammy said.  “I want my mommy back home here, with me.”

     “And she wants to be here too, but not until your father learns his lesson.” The shadow was at the bookcase.  “Sure you don’t want me to read to you.”

     A yawn.  “Maybe tomorrow.”  Sammy’s eyes were heavy.  “If my daddy doesn’t, first.”  Sleep was near.

     Oh, I don’t think he will.  “Ok,” the shadow said. 

     Sammy looked over at the bookcase, at the shadow.  “Do you ever see my mommy?”

     “Every night.” 

     “And you’re sure she’ll come back after Daddy learns his lesson?” Sammy rubbed his eyes, trying to stay wake. 

     “Of course, I’m sure,” the shadow said.  “In fact, you two will be together, before too long.”

     “When?”

     “When the time’s right.” The shadow tucked Sammy in. 

     “And you see her every night,” he said.

     The shadow nodded.  “Every night.”  Well, some of her.

     “Then can I see her tonight?” Sammy asked. 

     The shadow grinned.  “That would ruin the game.”

     “Then tell her I love her and miss her and want her to come back home.”

     “I will,” the shadow said.

     “Promise?”

     “Promise.”  The shadow grinned again.  “Cross my heart, hope to die—“

     “Stick a thousand needles in my eyes.”

     Not a bad idea   “Well,” the shadow said.  “Gotta get back in the attic, to watch over you and make sure nothing bad happens to you.”  Stick a thousand needles in your eyes!

     Sleep finally came, and Sammy gave himself to its soft embrace, the shadow climbing back up the latter, to the attic.

     A plastic bag was lifted from the floor and opened. 

     Marcy’s head rolled out, and the shadow stroked her blood caked hair.

     Yep, Mayor Jacob needs to learn his lesson about supporting the death sentence—a sentence that killed my brother, Billy.

     The shadow climbed back down the ladder, to Sammy’s bed, his slow breathing lightly raising the covers.

     Maybe this’ll finally get Mayor Jacob’s attention!

     And the shadow smiled…