GRANDMA’S ATTIC by Steve Ellis
Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin in the woods has an attic, but my brother and me aren’t allowed to go up there. We help Grandma around the house. She lets us pick berries to go in her pies and skin the rabbits that she shoots with Grandpa’s old gun, the one that he shot himself with, but let us go in the attic? No! The one time we tried to get up there and see what Grandma didn’t want us to, when we climbed the creaky old wooden ladder and got to the very top rung, she came after us, pulled us down by our ears, and beat the living daylights out of us. We’ve never gone back up there since.
Today’s going to be different, I tell myself. My brother and me, we’re eighteen today, old enough to join the army and go off to kill young men in other countries.
“Let’s go up there today,” I say to my brother, “while she’s out setting the traps.”
My brother’s face goes white, eyes wide, his mouth gaping open like a dying fish. He looks like he’s about to cry, the big baby, he’s always been a scaredy-cat.
“I’ll go first,” I tell him, “then you follow me. Come on, she’ll be back soon—we might not get another chance.”
“I’m n-not really sure I want to. I—I don’t think we should.” My brother’s shitting himself, tears are welling in his eyes.
“We’re going up there!”
I think I sound braver than I feel. It’s just that the ladder’s standing there and sometimes things have to be done, you can’t help yourself.
I climb the ladder, looking down all the while as the rotten old rungs bend on each footstep, threatening to give way at any moment. I get to the top and push open the hatch to the attic, because if I don’t do it right away I never will, and I lift myself up inside.
It’s the stink that hits me first, the stench of rot. At first, all I can see is darkness, just tiny specks of light where the roof leaks, but then I see something… someone. In the corner of the attic, sitting on a chair, is Grandpa. Or something that was part of Grandpa once upon a time. There’s a candle inside his head, lighting up his eye sockets like a pumpkin at Halloween. He’s hollow, just a skeleton—no skin, no heart, no brain. Then again, as Dad used to say, Grandpa always was a bit slow on the uptake.
“Well, you’re not exactly the sharpest tool in the box yourself,” Mum would tell Dad, always quick to shoot back at him. They were happy days, when we were one family all together, before they were taken from us. We don’t like to remember them now, it hurts too much, and sometimes, if we concentrate hard enough, it’s like they never lived.
My heart’s thumping like a drum, and whatever’s in my stomach is rising up into my throat. I tear my eyes away, try to be brave for my brother. I look down through the hatch and see his frightened face staring up at me.
“W-what’s up there? W-what do you see?” He stutters when he’s scared.
“It’s... very strange,” I hear myself saying about dear old Grandpa. “Come and have a look!”
My brother does as he’s told, he usually does in the end, and the rafters vibrate in time with his footsteps as he climbs the ladder. Grandpa’s body, or what’s left of it, shakes a bit too, and for a second, it’s like he’s alive, startled to attention. As my brother squeezes through the hatch and sits down next to me, his breathing’s unsteady, jagged in the silent attic. Grandpa’s still again and dead to the world.
“Do you see him there, in the corner?” I ask my brother, watching his face as he squints in the dark.
He’s seen Grandpa, I know he has because he’s gripping my arm so tightly, I don’t think he’ll ever let go.
“W-what is it? What’s it doing there?” In the half-light, his eyes bulge and his lower lip trembles.
“Let’s get closer,” I say, and we crawl on all fours along a sagging rafter towards the skeleton in the chair. It’s wearing Grandpa’s clothes—I remember the dark red cardigan with the two missing buttons that popped off where his belly grew too big. He hasn’t got a belly at all now and the sweater hangs off his shoulders like a mouldy old rag. The skeleton’s smoking Grandpa’s cigar, or at least he would if he had any lungs. Grandpa was never without a cigar.
As my brother and I come to a stop at the skeleton’s feet, its mouth opens slightly, and the cigar falls to the attic floor. The bony frame shifts position, as you do when you’ve been sitting in a chair a long time and your backside gets sore. The mouth gapes open and there’s... I must be imagining it... what? It’s almost like there’s flesh on the bones, like I see Grandpa’s wrinkled, yellow-skinned face, his fierce eyes trained on mine as the body that used to be his raises a fist.
“The witch is back!” cries the Grandpa skeleton body in a scratchy, savage whisper. “Go! Go now, or she’ll murder you too!”
I flinch, fall backwards. It can’t be…Grandpa’s alive! The skeleton’s head stares right at me and I’m afraid that he’ll attack, put my eyes out with his bony finger.
“W-what do you mean, Grandpa? D-did sh-she m-murder you?” It’s my brother, talking to a man who Grandma told us had shot himself six months ago.
A sudden gunshot blasts through the attic floor, takes out a roof tile and a shaft of light floods the attic from above and below. The witch is back! Through the ringing in my ears, I hear her climb the ladder. My brother and me, we don’t make a sound, don’t even breathe, just sit there, still as can be. The barrel of her rifle appears through the hatch. I glance back at Grandpa but the skin, and the eyes that I thought I saw, have gone and he’s just bones, a skeleton saying, hearing, feeling nothing.
Grandma slowly comes up through the hatch, grunting, cursing under her breath. Her body blocks the light from below, leaving just the single shaft of light from the bullet hole and the candle in Grandpa’s throat. I can’t see Grandma’s face yet, but I know she’s angry, I can tell. She pulls herself up and then shuffles towards us, carrying the gun. My brother and me, we don’t move, don’t look her in the eye, it’s best not to. She’s standing right in front of us now. I look up, but before I can say anything, she swipes the rifle butt across my jaw, then does the same to my brother.
“YOU USELESS PAIR OF FUCKWITS! Look what you made me do! Uh? UH? I’ve had a nice morning, shot some rabbits for my supper and trapped a nice deer, then I come back to this. Youuuuuu! I should have done away with you both when I had the chance—just like I did with the others!”
Her speech is slurred from homemade whisky, but her deep, rasping voice booms around the attic, echoing off the roof, the rafters, everywhere.
“Why can’t you give an old man some peace? What’s he ever done to you? Look, you made him drop his cigar.”
She picks up the cigar, sticks one end of it in her mouth and takes some matches out of the bulging pocket in her blood-stained dungarees. There’s a burst of flame and my Grandma’s lined face is behind it, framed by her dirty grey, frizzy hair that hasn’t been brushed in years. She takes long puffs on the cigar. The attic is quickly filled with white smoke, and through it I watch her open Grandpa’s mouth, slot the lit cigar between his teeth and clamp his mouth shut. She smiles at my brother and me, the few black-spotted teeth that are left glowing yellow in the candlelight.
“Always liked a smoke, your Grandpa. He’s probably dying for one now, to calm his nerves, what with a pair of rats running around him, stirrin’ up trouble, disturbin’ the peace. Come to think of it, I could do with a bit of peace.”
Her gaze shifts from Grandpa to my brother, and then to me.
“You ungrateful pair of little shits! I shoot birds for you, kill rabbits for you, do fuckin’ everything for you. And what do I get in return, huh? Nothin’, that’s what! Well, I’ve had enough—when people tick me off, they’re gone!”
She clicks her callused fingers, staring hard at me, then my brother, then me again.
“You first,” she whispers calmly. She swings the gun barrel in my direction and squints down the length of it, as if she’s shooting at me from a hundred yards instead of a hundred inches.
Grandpa’s voice. The skeleton’s mouth is wide open and the lit cigar’s tumbled onto his cardigan. A tiny flame appears, and as he shifts position the cigar falls to the attic floor. At the sound of Grandpa’s voice, Grandma wheels around and stares at him, almost dropping the gun.
“WHAT? Was that you? It can’t be... you can’t be. I shot you dead, like I did the others, with this…”
My brother suddenly leaps up and grabs the rifle barrel, taking Grandma by surprise. He pulls the gun from her grasp and holds the weapon against his chest as he desperately scrambles backwards away from her. As I look on, helpless, not knowing what to do, flames spread out over Grandpa’s sweater.
“GIVE ME THAT GUN BACK NOW, OR I’LL KILL YOU WITH MY BARE HANDS, YOU LITTLE C—”
Grandma’s screaming at my brother and doesn’t see the skeleton standing behind her. The skeleton’s arms grab her from behind in a deadly tight, vice-like embrace, the flames from Grandpa’s cardigan catching her dungarees and frizzy hair alight.
“We’ve got to get out—now!” My brother’s shouting at me from above the hatch, still holding the gun.
Grandma and Grandpa, or what’s left of them, are both on fire now. Her face is like a mask of burning, melting skin, her rotten teeth laid bare in a lipless, red raw mouth. A waxwork dummy of cooking flesh, her nose, hair, ears are all gone, but one of her eyes still blazes with hatred. Arms pinned to her sides, the hands balled into claws, she’s screeching, wailing, but there are no words.
The stink of cooking meat, that’s what makes me move, finally. I can’t do anything to help and don’t want to, I just need to get away. Everything’s catching fire now: the rafters, the roof, the floor, and the ladder must be about to go. Big flames are leaping up here, there, and I can’t breathe for the smoke. The rafter I’m crawling on suddenly gives way and collapses through the ceiling below, taking me down with it. I hit the ground feet first but roll backwards through blazing hot ash, smoke and burning timbers. Something grips my arm.
“I’VE GOT YOU!”
It’s my brother. He leads me outside into smoky daylight, then we just run. I taste coppery blood in my mouth and just want to lie down and go to sleep, but I know I mustn’t do that. We get two hundred yards away before we finally look back at the cabin. It’s falling to the ground in pieces, collapsing in on itself. Sparks are flying high into the sky, like golden dust, so high that I think all the trees for miles around are going to catch light. We watch as our home becomes one big fireball, feel the heat of it even though we’re a long way away, the whole place burning down to nothing in front of our eyes.
We sit and watch for hours. What we do now and where we go, I don’t know. My brother doesn’t take his eyes off the smoking, blackened remains.
“It’s time we were going,” I tell him.
“Going where?” he asks.
“Somewhere... anywhere but here. You coming, or what?” I get to my feet and make to go, but he doesn’t move a muscle.
“I’m g-going to wait here for him,” he says.
“Wait for who?”
The answer comes in the form of a figure emerging from the dying embers of the fire, smoking a cigar.