Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chapter Thirty-Four: Treasures in the Attic

When Compass finally got up the energy to go get her mail, Todd came bolting out of his apartment to meet her in the hall. He tried to make it look coincidental, but there was the faintest imprint of a peephole around one eye.

“I see Mark stayed rather late,” he crowed. “I saw him in the hallway at a suspicious hour.”

“Yes, apparently he’s dating Mrs. Schuster in 3B. I asked him if a 40-year age gap was awkward, but he said she’s coping with it really well.”

“Very funny. So? Is it love?”

“I’m not sure. He says Mrs. Schuster is ‘emotionally unavailable’ which is odd, since I’ve seen her crying over advertising inserts in the Sunday paper.”

“You’re not going to tell me.” Todd pouted, as best a man well over six feet and built like a linebacker can pout.

“Things are a bit new, that’s all. There’s not much to tell.” Compass resumed her walk to the bank of mailboxes, Todd hot on her heels.

“I don’t want relationship details, Compass. I’ve got soap operas to take care of my drama needs. I want prurience, I want smut. I need me some of that good, vicarious lovin’!”

“Forget it.” They had reached the mailboxes. Compass inserted her key and fought with the tinny, cheap, impenetrable little mailbox door, as always.

“Fine. It can’t have been that great, since he didn’t even stay the night.” Todd leaned his back against the wall of mailboxes.

“Huh? Yes, he did.” The mailbox still refused to open, despite continued wiggling and tugging.

“Oh, so I didn’t see him sneaking out, shoes untied and unzipped fly flapping at 3.30 this morning? OK, I made up the bit about the open fly, but the rest is true.”

“You were dreaming. He got up to go to work.” The mailbox door yielded suddenly, and Compass slammed the back of her hand into the next mailbox in the row. “Ow, dammit!”

“Maybe it was some sort of bug emergency.” Todd shrugged. “I was up at 3.30 to release a late-night Pepsi demon, and I heard something thumping around in the hallway. I went to the door to look, and lo and behold, there’s your underdeveloped Mr. Clean, shoes clutched in one hand and desperately tugging a sock on with the other. I figured you’d done some head-swiveling marry-me-now girl thing and he was making good his escape.”

“Did you hear him come back?” Compass looked through her mail without actually registering a single address.

“Not over the sounds of my own gleeful cackling, no.”

“So glad you’re on my side, Todd.”

“I have no life at all. I take my victories where I find them. So he left and you didn’t know it?”

“Not until I woke up this morning, no. I figured he’d just gotten up and gone to work. He brought me groceries.”

“He did? What groceries, for example?”

“Forget it.” Compass wiggled her key loose from her mailbox door and started back up the stairs to her apartment. “If I can’t kill the messenger, I’ll let him starve to death.”

“Well, you just keep your horny girl self to yourself, child,” Todd called up the stairs behind her. “That boy looked like he needed some sleep.”

Compass opened the door to her apartment, Todd’s words echoing in her ears. Mark did look like he needed sleep. He’d looked that way for awhile. What was going on that he wasn’t sleeping?

She tossed the mail on the couch and went to the kitchen to make tea. She stood in front of the open cabinet, one hand still on the cabinet doorknob, and stared into the dry-good depths, unseeing. The bells in her head weren’t exactly alarm bells, more the kind that jingled an alert when someone opened the door to a shop. The word TRUST rose up in front of her eyes and she tried to blink it away until she realized that she was looking at a packet of TRUEST TEA, a Chinese blend devised by a company who didn’t put much stock in correct Sino/American translations for the American market. “Best tea you buy for bladder!”

Did she trust Mark? It was a simple question. She’d trusted him enough to share a bed with him, sleep beside him, completely vulnerable. But the fact that’d he’d sneaked out in the middle of the night, left a note that – if not a lie – was intentionally misleading: these things stuck in her head like burrs.

The tea kettle was screaming and might have been for awhile when Compass was finally able to shake her head and dislodge her unwelcome thoughts. Clearly, she realized, she didn’t entirely trust Mark or she would have been able to withhold suspicion until she could ask him for an explanation.

Fine, she thought. Then I’ll go to Henry and Sophie’s and get Mom’s money by myself. And then I’ll find out what Mark’s up to. No. No, then I’ll ask Mark why he left in the middle of the night, why he’s been so sleep-deprived, and I’ll accept whatever explanation he gives … if it’s plausible.

With this decided, Compass was finally able to complete the making of the tea.

Later that night, having fobbed off Mark’s offers of dinner with excuses about stomach upset, Compass dressed all in black and prepared, for a second time, to sneak around her mother’s house. Happily, this time, Mina wouldn’t be there.

Compass had decided to regard this as a stealth mission. It was possible that her father was watching the house, and though Compass hadn’t heard from him for awhile on Dragonfly Dad, there was no reason to think he’d given up and gone back to England.

More than ever, Compass wished she could just talk to her father without hiding behind anonymous blogs and pen names and all this subterfuge and mistrust. So what if her father and Jenny had had a love affair? So what if Jenny had been sent into their home to spy on Mina and her daughter? Did it mean Jenny loved her any less? Or perhaps not at all? Compass couldn’t believe that. For years Jenny had been her constant companion, her comfort, her most trusted ally in the war that had been waged on her childhood. Jenny had loved her, ulterior motives aside. Compass refused to believe anything else.

On the way to Mina’s house, Compass replayed scenes from her childhood inside her head, looking them over carefully for cracks. Granted, her memories of Jenny had the glowing soft-focus of childhood affection around them, but Compass had been a pretty astute kid. Years of living with the volcanic Mina had required highly honed survival skills. Compass had trusted Jenny then; she trusted her now.

Mina’s house was completely dark. Compass parked a couple of blocks away and walked up the back alley rather than take the street-lit sidewalk. She let herself in the back door. The house was freezing and eerily quiet. She was halfway up the stairs, shivering and feeling her way in the dark, when she heard the heater in the basement start its quiet humming.

“Thank you,” she whispered to the air. She had been just a little creeped out at the thought of being alone in the attic of a house she knew for certain was haunted, but it almost made her feel bad not to trust them, the way she’d felt about not trusting her grandparents. Henry and Sophie clearly wanted to take care of her, and so Compass decided to be brave on just this one thing in her life, and she headed on up to the attic.

The attic itself was quite brightly lit, thanks to a clear sky and fat, shining moon. But the fake wall, if it was really there, would likely be in a crevice or recessed wall that was shrouded in shadows. Compass took a handkerchief from her pocket and covered the business end of her flashlight with it before she switched it on. Something snapped under her foot – a small piece of wood, maybe one of Henry’s pencils – and Compass froze for a second. It was then she realized that the house was singing again. She stood very still for a moment, the lit end of her flashlight pressed against her chest, and listened.

I’m safe here, Compass thought, and tears came unexpectedly to her eyes. They’re telling me I’m safe. She stood a minute more and then got to work.

The attic was mostly unfinished, so in places the walls were exposed four by fours, and in other places there was a thin covering of drywall, inexpertly nailed to the beams. Where there was no covering, Compass assumed there was no money either. Where there was a covering, she thumped the drywall, flicking it with a finger like she was judging the ripeness of a melon. Thumping revealed nothing, of course, so she went back downstairs, dragged Mina’s thoroughly inadequate toolbox out from under the kitchen sink and carried a hammer and a screwdriver back upstairs with her.

Back in the attic, she set to the drywall with abandon, using the screwdriver to gouge out holes here and there, setting the claw of the hammer inside a small hole to rip out a larger one. At one point she paused to pull a sweaty lock of hair away from her eyes, and she looked around at her handiwork. Even in the limited beam cast by the cloaked flashlight, the room looked like it had been set upon by a crazed woodpecker. Still, she’d reached her hand into a couple dozen holes and found nothing at all. She was starting to wonder if Mina had set her up when suddenly she realized the music had stopped.

It had been playing, quietly, just a moment ago, she was sure of it. She knew it was because she’d recognized the piece: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the few pieces of classical music she knew and consequently one of her favorites. But now the house was absolutely silent. Silent, except for the distinct creak of one of the wooden floors below.

Someone was in the house.

Henry and Sophie had turned off the music to warn her. Almost in the same instant that she realized this, she heard a creak from the staircase that led to the attic. She froze in complete panic. There was another creak, then another, as whoever it was made their way up to the attic door which, thankfully, Compass (or Henry or Sophie) had closed. Another creak, closer this time, unfroze her. Compass grabbed up her flashlight and skidded as quietly as she could under Henry’s desk, the only cover in the room. She pulled in Henry’s chair behind her and fumbled with the flashlight in the manner of Hollywood heroines in distress, finally snapping it off an instant before the attic door creaked open.

If whoever it was had been able to get the light to turn on, they would have seen the haze of drywall dust in the air. But the light – which had worked just fine as recently as a couple of nights ago – wouldn’t switch on. There were some frustrated flicking noises from near the doorway, but the light refused to work, and Compass sent up another silent thank you to Henry and Sophie.

A pair of heavy boots, glowing faintly in the moonlight, stomped past Henry’s desk as whoever it was took a long look around. The boots were simply too big to be Mark’s. Compass knew that was a pretty feeble fantasy anyway; the house would have kept singing if Mark had showed up.

Compass tried to keep her breathing soundless, but her body needed to gasp and retch and heave in fear. Her heart was thumping so hard, she could see the flashlight tremble with the beats as she clutched it to her chest. Spots were swimming in front of her vision, she was so sure that in another moment a head would lean down and spot her, crouched under the desk, trapped and defenseless. Maybe it was Oliver, maybe it wasn’t, but whoever it was, they’d had to break in to be here because Compass had locked the door behind her.

When the chair was yanked out, Compass made a little squeal which she prayed was covered by the general squeakiness of the chair. Not that it mattered. Her time was up. The face was coming, and the malevolent, murderous body behind it. Compass closed her eyes and wondered how much damage she could do if she hit that face with her flashlight.

But the face didn’t come.

Just then, just as whoever it was prepared to do whatever it was it was going to do with the chair, with her, with the whole end of her tiny, precious world as she knew it, the music turned back on with a thunderous crash. It was loud enough to turn her ears inside out, and Compass nearly cried out at the suddenness and pain of it. The lights in the attic blazed on, a thousand times brighter than the one unshaded bulb that hung from the center beam, and as Compass turned her face away, the light just as quickly went off again.

“What the-” she heard, impossible to detect an accent with the scream of the music, then the lights blared on again, then off, then the music shut off, then on, then the attic door slammed shut, then flew open, and then the man in the heavy boots had had enough and he fled, thundering down the steps so fast he was half stumbling, half flying, and then he was out the door, heavy footfalls moving fast down the sidewalk, past the house and away.

Compass was still so scared. Henry and Sophie had saved her, again, but she was terrified, now of them as much as him, whoever he was, and she was all right, she was all right, the house was sane again, the attic light as dim as ever, the music soft, and still Compass was sobbing, sobbing there under Henry’s desk, her heart broken, her soul turned inside out and emptied like a pocket, and she bawled and raged and there was no one to hold her, no one with arms, anyway, and she knew Henry and Sophie’s hearts were breaking for her, she could feel them trying to carry away some of her sorrow like bags of sand, but they couldn’t, for all their wanting to, and she just had to sob and tell them she’d be OK when she could talk around her tears.

When finally, an eternity later, cramps in her legs forced her out from under Henry’s desk, Compass felt hollow. If someone turned her upside down, she’d make that noise like a rain stick makes, the sound of the storms coming from inside her. She just wanted to go home. She wanted to curl up with her girls and maybe do a little more weeping, since she’d gotten so good at it lately, and drink hot chocolate and try to forget that the most solid, loving people in her world were ghosts.

“Thank you. Henry, Sophie, thank you.” She looked at the floor, didn’t look up in case they were there, visible somehow, and she wouldn’t be able to hide her terror from these shadow-people who, inexplicably, loved her and protected her. “You saved my life. Thank you. Again.”

Now that the light was on, she could clearly see where the drywall had been cut and removed and new piece put in its place. It would look like just a shoddy repair job to anyone who didn’t know that this house belonged to a woman with plenty to hide. She located her hammer, slightly east of a giant footstep that didn’t belong to her or to Mark, and pried the drywall loose.

The money was stacked inside: fat packets of $10s and $20s, rubber-banded, more packets underneath, $100s and $50s. The dust on them was thick – Mina hadn’t had to touch her reserves since they’d been placed here. There was money enough to bring her back to life, money enough to shield her until she died, whichever path Mina’s life would take from here on. Compass found a bag to stuff it in, this Museum money she didn’t even want to touch. She turned off the attic light as she left.

As she followed her father’s dusty footprints down the staircase from the attic, Compass realized that the house was warm. Her father – if that’s who it was – must have known she was there. She shivered again, stopped to clutch a suddenly uncertain stomach as she realized how close she’d come. She barely had leg strength enough to get down the stairs, but she made it. As she stood at the back door, ready to leave, she heard the heater shut itself off, the music fade to silence. She turned and blew a kiss to the house that only seemed empty.

She drove straight from Mina’s to her grandparents’ house, not stopping even to answer her cell phone which rang and rang and rang. She drove all the way around and over the bridge to the island, and didn’t stop moving until she’d carried the money into the house and dumped it in Mina’s lap.

Before Mina could say a word, Compass turned and walked out again, pausing only to bear hug her grandmother and grandfather, giving them hugs not only for themselves but Henry’s and Sophie’s portions as well. Then she drove the two hours back to Seattle, her car coasting in on fumes and good fortune, back to her cats and her hot chocolate and her sweet sweet bed that, thanks to a quick phone call somewhere around Tacoma, had Mark – fast asleep – in it.


NuclearToast said...

This chapter needs to be stored in the freezer! Spoooooky!

Ash said...

OMG! Great chapter! This line made my heart skip a beat: "Someone was in the house." Yikes!

Ash said...

Ok - I know we had a holiday weekend and all but can we please have another chapter soon? I have started to sweat, shake and my head is pounding. ;)

Ash said...

It's been almost a month! I don't know how much longer I can last without my CJ!!!! ;)

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