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Girl in the Attic

By dandjurdjevic All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Mystery

Blurb

Rose lives with her mother Valerie in a run-down cottage in an old part of town. Rose steals things. Valerie drinks. That's just the way it is. Whenever Rose gets caught, Valerie banishes her to the cramped, dusty attic - often for weeks at a time. Then one day Rose decides she's going to change her life: she's going to close that attic door forever. And that's exactly what she does. So why do the police suddenly want to speak with Rose again? Why does she have a shiny new watch she can't recall buying (or stealing!)? For that matter, why can't she seem to remember speaking with some people, being at various places, taking up smoking or making particular sketches and notes in her journal? And why is it that, as Rose lies awake at night with her covers pulled up to chin, she can hear something - bumps, shuffling steps and a girl's cough - coming from the attic? Girl in the Attic is a young adult mystery that explores themes of compulsive behaviour, addiction, the importance of family, the nature of chance and the role your choices play in shaping destiny.

Mine

It was late Friday. Valentino’s Ristorante and Pizzeria had closed but Rose was still in the bathroom, trying to wash the smell of onion and garlic butter off her hands. Of course she couldn’t. The smell lingered even though she’d scrubbed her fingers until they started bleeding (again). In the end Rose gave up and dried her hands, surveying the fresh cuts that had opened up on the edges of her fingernails: long thin slices that went deep into her pink flesh.

Finally, she looked up at her reflection. The bags under her eyes showed the world that she was tired: tired in that bone-deep way only those who work all night on their feet can understand. It was the type of tiredness you got from rushing from table to table, trying to please customers who were cranky after a week of work or uni or school or whatever. It was also the tiredness you felt when your boss never stopped glaring at you from under his dark, bushy eyebrows.

Here’s the thing about her boss, Sam: he hated Rose. In his eyes, she couldn’t do anything properly. The more Sam expected Rose to stuff up, the more she did exactly that. She would drop plates. She would mix up orders. She would forget what the specials were. All this because she knew Sam was watching her every move like a hawk – just waiting for a reason to fire her. That made Rose feel like she was doing exams each and every Friday. And if there was one thing Rose didn’t handle very well, it was exams. Assignments, fine. Exams, not so much.

But hey, she wasn’t doing this work for the love of it. She needed the money. Boy, did she need the money. She sure as hell wasn’t getting any from her mother. Especially not now. Not when she was in such deep, deep trouble.

“Sam is looking for you,” said Evan as Rose came out of the toilets. It looked like he had been waiting for her. Evan was a couple of years older – already in his first year at WAAPA where he was studying drama. He once invited Rose to watch him performing one of Shakespeare’s plays. Of course she never went. She didn’t have the money or the transport. Besides, she didn’t understand Shakespeare. Who did?

Anyway, she didn’t know what to make of Evan. He made her feel nervous.

Like now. He was leaning on the wall outside the toilets, wearing his usual expression – a faint smile (or was it a smirk?) hinted at the corners of his eyes but not his mouth. Was he laughing at her? For the umpteenth time, Rose wondered if Evan knew her secret: her dark, terrible shame. Evan’s father was a judge after all – in the Children’s Court, of all places. He would know about her for sure.

“Yeah? What does Sam want?” Rose asked. “I’ve got to get home. It’s late and I’ve got to study tomorrow. I’ve got exams coming up.”

“He probably wants to pay you.”

She scoffed and said: “Yeah, right. That would be a first.” Getting Sam to pay her wages was as hard as pulling teeth. Or something like that, Rose imagined – she had never had a tooth pulled out (at least, not an adult one).

“You know,” said Evan, almost to himself, “I really think you should speak to Sam about the whole money thing. It’s time you got a proper wage – one that’s paid into your bank account, not given to you under the counter.”

Rose didn’t know how to reply, so she stood silently for a moment, leaning on one leg, her hands crossed tightly across her chest.

When she was first offered the job, Sam had insisted on paying Rose in cash. He said this was because he didn’t want to pay tax, insurance, superannuation, blah, blah, blah… stuff she didn’t really understand. The agreement was that she would be paid a little more in return. All of this was meant to be a secret. So how did Evan know?

It occurred to Rose that if Evan knew about her ‘financial arrangement’ with Sam, he probably knew her other secret too. The big one. After all, he still lived at home – with his father, the Children’s Court judge. Over dinner Evan might have casually mentioned a grade eleven school student named Rose Azzopardi who worked at the restaurant. Even though he wasn’t supposed to, his dad might have filled in the rest of her story. Maybe by accident. Maybe on purpose.

Or maybe someone Evan knew at the shopping centre had seen the whole thing and told him about it. The restaurant was in the same complex, after all. He might have heard how the pharmacy staff had stopped and questioned Rose. How the police had been called. How she had been arrested for shoplifting. Again.

Maybe he’d come to snoop. Or gloat. Or both. Either way, it might explain Evan’s ‘secret’ smile. It might even explain his sudden interest in her money situation.

Eventually Rose said: “What’s it to you anyway?”

“I just don’t think Sam’s treating you fairly.”

“And why would you care?” Rose noticed some spit flying out of her mouth as she said the last word and immediately felt her face starting to burn. She instinctively wiped at her mouth with her sleeve. The little bubble of spit was clearly visible on the ground between herself and Evan. He acted as if he hadn’t noticed.

“Just trying to be your friend Rose,” Evan said quietly.

“Yeah well, I’ve got enough friends, thank you very much. So mind your own business, okay?” With that she turned and stomped towards the back room where Sam usually sat doing accounts or whatever. She could hear that Evan hadn’t moved and imagined his gaze, still boring into her back as she walked down the corridor.

The door was ajar when Rose came up to it. Through the gap she could see Sam sitting behind a monitor at his desk, papers everywhere, boxes of stuff piled up behind him. The room had that stale stink of skin, sweat and humming computers. Whatever happened, she knew she’d be washing her hands again as soon as she got home. She felt dirty just standing there in the stuffy air.

So she knocked – a quick little tap.

“Who is it?” Sam barked.

“You wanted to see me?” asked Rose, nudging the door open and peering around it.

Sam snorted – like a horse snorts. Rose could see the hairs of his bushy moustache move with the exhalation. Then he shook his head and waved her in. Rose felt her heart pounding. Was she being fired?

“Lucy can’t make it on Wednesday in two weeks’ time. The second of November. I need you to cover her shift.”

“But that’s a school night… I don’t know if…”

“I’m not asking you because I want to. I’m asking you because I have no other choice. Everyone else has some lame excuse.” Sam had put his elbows on the table and linked his fingers. He was staring at her through his bloodshot eyes. Rose couldn’t stop staring at them – and his black stubble, his double chin and his curly mess of greasy hair. He looked disgusting – a bit like the Banksia Man from those kids’ books her mother used to read to her (back in the good old days when her mother used to do stuff like that). Rose realised she must have been staring a bit too long when Sam abruptly slapped the desk, causing her to startle.

“So? What’s it going to be? Are you also going to give me a lame excuse? Because if you are, I can tell you that this will be your last night here.”

“I’ll do the shift…” Rose spluttered.

“Good. You live to work another day. Now get out. I don’t want to see your useless face until next week.” Sam turned back to his screen.

“Um, Sam… I wanted to talk about the pay situation.”

Rose’s boss sighed, abruptly grabbed his cheeks with both hands and pulled them down, making his eyes look even more bloodshot than they were. At that moment, he looked like some kind of ghoulish Halloween mask. “After all your stuff-ups tonight you want to talk money eh? What a nerve! Did I, or did I not, just tell you to get lost?” He pursed his lips, got up and pointed at the door with his stubby finger.

“But… I haven’t been paid for the last two shifts…” protested Rose as she backed out.

Sam kept his finger pointed firmly and said, through gritted teeth: “You know the deal. See Sofia on Saturday morning and she’ll pay you from the till. Now get out. GO!”

Rose hurried out into the corridor, dodged the stacked dining tables and pushed her way through the double doors into the fresh, cool night air. Only then did she allow herself to breathe.

Here was the problem: for the last few weeks Sofia, Sam’s loud, fat, fake, wife, wasn’t there on a Saturday morning. No one was. So it looked like Rose wasn’t going be paid – again.

But none of this compared to the bigger problem of her court case for shoplifting. She’d already pleaded guilty. The sentencing was scheduled for Monday morning. This was her third offence and the lawyer – a grouch named Lane who worked with her mum – had been giving her the third degree. As if she wasn’t getting enough hassle at home.

Which was where she was heading right now. What was that old saying? From the frying pan into the fire? Rose took another deep breath of the fresh night air. It smelled like rain was coming. Good. At least it would be cooler. Anything to turn down the heat at home.

As she walked down the quiet, deeply shadowed streets of Mount Hawthorn, Rose tried in vain to see the time on her watch. Eventually she gave up and pulled out her phone. It was 11:55 p.m. Maybe her mother would be asleep, if not in her bed, then slumped in her chair in the lounge, an empty bottle of wine on the lampstand.

Rose already knew that you don’t get what you want in life. But, as that old song went, she hoped she might at least get what she needed. Right now, she needed her mother to be passed out so she could sneak up to the attic and finally get some peace and quiet. Was that too much to expect?

Of course it was. Rose should have known it too.

As she turned the key to their front door she could see light from the lounge shining through the leadlight window. Then came a blur of movement in the hallway, distorted by the kaleidoscope glass. Her mother, Valerie, was still up. And that meant there was a very high chance they would get into an argument.

So Rose stood on the porch in the darkness, a mosquito buzzing near her ear, the key in the lock, wondering if she should go inside or wait a little longer.

Their home was one of those old 1930s cottages, built with a wide, sloping veranda and Gothic redbrick walls that were slowly crumbling to dust. Rose had always felt the house looked haunted, especially with its roof of mossy tiles and disfigured gargoyles – not to mention the tiny attic window which was framed in cracked, peeling wood. The spiked wrought-iron fencing, gnarled rose bushes and the dead jarrah tree in the front yard just added to the overall effect.

It had started looking even more haunted after her father, Tony, had left. That had been three years before. A lot can happen in three years, especially to an old house that is already falling apart.

Her father used to be quite handy. When they first moved in, he always seemed to be hammering, plastering or painting at the top of a ladder somewhere. Tony had even tried his hand at ‘tuck-pointing’, which apparently meant fixing up the mortar between the bricks and putting neat white stripes on it.

But, typically, her father could never finish anything. For example, he only did the tuck-pointing on one side of the house. And similarly, the attic was left in total disarray: a couple of the rotten floorboards were torn-up; a split bag of plaster was left sitting in a disintegrating wooden box somewhere in the middle of the room; and an ancient wardrobe and other odd bits of broken, dusty furniture were pushed into one corner.

The attic had apparently once served as an artist’s loft. That’s why it had a tap with an old enamel basin (still lined with smears of dirty paint) on one side of the window. Somewhat strangely, a toilet was positioned right next to it – as if this were a perfectly ordinary thing to have in an artist’s studio. The far end of the loft was walled-off to hide a rusting evaporative air-conditioning unit that the previous owners had installed decades ago.

Tony had the idea of renovating the attic and making it his ‘man cave’. He even wanted to keep the toilet exactly where it was. He said: “You girls can use the downstairs one – this will be mine.” But aside from replacing the old air-conditioner with a new ducted system (Tony ran his own commercial air-conditioning business), he did little else to the space.

So basically that’s why the attic was still full of dust and junk when Tony left.

And it would have stayed that way, except that early last year Valerie threw some sheets onto the single bed that Tony had put in there – and told Rose she would be sleeping in it until Valerie said otherwise.

That happened after Rose’s first offence for shoplifting. She had walked out of the local BP service station with a can of Coke Zero and a Taylor Swift CD – without paying for either. Which was kind of weird because neither Rose nor Valerie owned a CD player. And Rose didn’t even like fizzy drinks – or Taylor Swift.

The court had let her off with a warning, but her mother hadn’t. Valerie told her she could choose either the attic or the street. Rose picked the attic.

She spent two nights up there. It was mid-winter at the time, and bitterly cold, with the cruel wind shrieking through the many hundreds of gaps between the tiles. On the third night, Valerie gave in and brought her daughter down. Rose remembered how they had both cried.

The second occasion had far more serious consequences – for Rose, Valerie and their relationship. It had happened eight months previously. Valerie made her spend two whole weeks in the attic: one day for every dollar value of the item she’d stolen (a cheap set of in-ear headphones from JB Hi-Fi). Again, the court let Rose off – but as you can see, her mother wasn’t so forgiving.

When Rose was caught for her third offence, she didn’t wait to be ordered up to the attic. Instead she just grabbed her journal, iPad and pyjamas and walked up the narrow flight of stairs to the trapdoor. She had been sleeping in the attic ever since.

That had been two months ago – Rose had spent most of the winter up there. And it had been a particularly cold winter too. Yet still, there was no sign her mother was willing to let Rose go back to her bedroom downstairs. She didn’t even dare ask.

Rose wondered if Valerie might let her come down after the court hearing on Monday. Part of her hoped so. Another part had stopped caring: in some ways Rose had gotten used to the attic. She had her own toilet and washbasin after all. And she had managed to dust all the surfaces (as best she could) and vacuum up most of the dirt. She had re-arranged the furniture and gradually taken out everything that was broken and rotten – filling the outside bin bit by bit until everything was gone.

Sure, the attic could be as cold as the walk-in freezer at Valentino’s – or as hot as their garden shed in the midday sun (Tony’s ducted air-conditioning only worked downstairs). And every night the wind still whistled between the tiles, just as every morning she was woken by the sharp rays that came through the very same cracks.

Also, the lack of a ceiling meant that she was constantly dusting and cleaning. And washing her hands…

But at least the attic had become her space – one she had created by herself.

Most importantly, it was a place where she could be alone. Her mother refused to go up there for some reason. This meant Rose didn’t have to argue with Valerie quite so much. She certainly didn’t have to watch her mother getting drunk every night. She could even close her eyes and try to forget the mess downstairs: the dirty floors, the piles and piles of unwashed clothing, the crumbs and dried spills on the kitchen benches and the permanent stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

In other words, as miserable as the attic was, it belonged to Rose: it was a place where she could draw and write in her journal, count her money, and imagine the day when she could move out of her mother’s house.

Rose was thinking of all of this, still standing on the porch with her key in the lock, when the door was abruptly yanked open – hard enough that she almost fell forward into the corridor. Valerie was standing in front of her, a pale, scowling figure in the yellow porch light.

“What the hell were you doing? Planning on spending the night on the porch? I can arrange that, you know,” she snapped.

The argument had begun.

Rose didn’t bother to reply but instead tried to squeeze past her mother and hurry up the stairs to the attic.

“You are two weeks behind in your board. Almost three,” said Valerie to her retreating back.

“Yeah well, I haven’t been paid for the last few weeks, have I?” Rose replied, turning halfway up the narrow staircase.

“Don’t lie to me Rose.”

“I’m not lying!” As she said this she threw her backpack down. It didn’t fall down the stairs but something inside cracked. Rose hoped it wasn’t her mobile phone.

Valerie sneered, crossed her arms and slumped against a wall. “You expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, I do actually. Sam keeps telling me to see his fat, lazy wife on Saturday. He says she’ll pay me then. Of course she’s never there.”

“Hmph. When the hell are you going to tell him to stop playing games and pay you properly?”

“I tried to talk to him. Tonight. He basically just told me to get lost.”

“Is that why you were late?”

Rose made an exaggerated ‘sad’ face. “Aww… was my mummy worried about me?”

“You’re damn right I was,” Valerie spat back, her voice slurring.

“Look who’s lying now.”

“Don’t you dare try to lecture me Rose! Don’t you dare!” Valerie had raised her voice so that it echoed down the hall and up the stairwell. “Not after everything you’ve done in the last year. Not when things have been so damn… hard!”

“Hard?” Rose took a step or two closer to her mother, her brow furrowed, eyes narrowed. “You think they’ve been hard? For who? You?”

Valerie seemed shocked by her daughter’s advance and took an unsteady step backward. For a moment she didn’t reply. Finally she said, in a quieter voice: “Look, I know you’ve been having a rough trot lately…”

“Rough trot? What are you talking about? Horse racing? Don’t tell me you’ve started gambling – like Dad?”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”

Rose shook her head. “Oh I know lots of stuff. But you… You haven’t got an effing clue. Have you?”

“Don’t swear Rose,” replied Valerie, pointing her finger.

“Well ‘effing’ isn’t a swearword, is it Mum? It’s what you say when you don’t want to swear. Just like – oh, I don’t know – the attic is the kind of ‘home’ you give someone when you don’t want to give them a home.”

“That’s not true…”

“What’s not true? That you just made me live up there – in that filthy, draughty little gap in your roof – through the whole effing winter?”

“Don’t you try to paint me as the villain here! You’re the one who’s become a thief! You’re the one who’s brought shame on this house!” Valerie shouted back.

Rose walked up to her mother until they were virtually nose-to-nose – till she could smell Valerie’s stale red-wine breath. Her mother rocked back on her heels unsteadily. Rose tensed her top lip and hissed: “Fair enough. But I’m not the only who one should be ashamed. You tell me,” she said, pointing up the staircase. “Who else would do something like this to their own daughter?” She paused for moment. When Valerie said nothing, Rose continued in a childish, sing-song voice: “Would you like to come up and see my room Mummy? I’ve made it nice and pretty. I’ve even drawn some pictures for you.”

Abruptly Valerie stumbled, falling backwards and steadying herself against the door frame of the lounge entrance. She stuttered: “You – you – needed to be punished.”

“But never loved?”

“I do love you Rose.” Valerie’s lower lip was quivering.

Rose scoffed. “Oh please! You have a funny way of showing it. Anyway, why won’t you come up to the attic? I’ll tell you. It’s because you don’t want to see how I live – how you’ve forced me to live. You’re too ashamed. And you should be.”

Valerie started to cry. “I had to do it,” she said between sobs, wiping at her eyes. “It was for your own good…”

“How would you know what was good for me Mum? You say things have been tough for you, but have you ever thought – even once – about how it’s been for me since Dad left? Do you know anything about my life: what I’ve been through – what I’m going through right now?”

Valerie sniffed repeatedly and shook her head.

“I didn’t think so.” Rose climbed back up the staircase, picking up her backpack as she went. At the top she turned and added: “Don’t worry, I’ll pay you my board tomorrow – from my savings. And no matter what the court fines me on Monday, I’ll pay that too. One way or another, I’m going to leave this place soon. When I do, I won’t owe you a thing.” And with that, she pressed the light switch on the wall, pushed up against the trapdoor and climbed into the attic.

Valerie called from below: “I don’t know you anymore! You’ve changed – just like your father changed!”

“Have another drink Mum. That’ll make everything better,” Rose shouted back before letting the trapdoor slam shut.

The pang of regret was immediate – like a punch to gut. She didn’t mean those last words. They had just flown out of her mouth. But there was no way of pulling them back in. Just as there was no way of undoing any of the other mistakes she’d made in the previous year.

Rose sat down on the edge of her bed and held her breath, listening to Valerie weeping softly at the foot of the stairwell. Eventually she heard her mother’s unsteady feet shuffling down the corridor towards her bedroom. Only once she heard the sound of Valerie’s door closing did Rose let herself exhale.

The first thing she decided to do was check what had broken in her bag. She unpacked it to find that her new drink bottle, bought out of her savings, had shattered on the inside. Why did they make the interior out of glass? It just didn’t make sense: that was thirty dollars down the drain. Luckily her phone was okay.

She poured the remaining water into the basin and spent the next ten minutes emptying out the shards of glass onto a piece of paper. Even though she tried to be careful, she managed to get a piece caught in her thumb, causing a bubble of blood to pop up.

That meant she had to wash her hands immediately. And because Rose was Rose, she did it three times, drying her hands after each round.

After that, she pulled out the night’s tip money. People didn’t usually tip at Valentino’s, but if they did, they were encouraged to put the money into a big jar at the front counter. That money would then be shared equally between the wait staff. Rose counted it: $12.15 – a good night as far as tips went, but peanuts next to the wage she had been missing.

She got down onto the crumbling floorboards and groped under her bed until she pulled out the small, lidded pot that she’d borrowed from the kitchen. This was where Rose kept her money. After adding the tips, Rose counted her savings. Three times. If she made an error, she had to start again. That was her ‘rule’: she had to get the same figure three times in a row or else… She didn’t know. It was the same as her other compulsions. She didn’t even want to think what might happen if she broke one of these ‘rules’. Whatever it was, it was sure to be something horrible.

When she was finished, she started getting ready for bed. Normally she might sneak down for a shower once Valerie’s sonorous snores could be heard vibrating through the ceiling. This usually meant her mother was in her deepest sleep and would be utterly immovable. But even though she could already hear the steady rasp of her mother’s breathing, this wasn’t a night where she was prepared to risk it. So instead Rose washed herself at the basin (just a hand wash – she’d wash her hair tomorrow when Valerie was out).

After brushing her teeth it was time for her ‘nightly check’: Rose would first go to the trapdoor to make sure the latch was fastened. She’d unfasten and refasten it three times. This would be followed by checks under the bed and in the old wardrobe – also three of them.

The last check was the one she dreaded the most: the ventilation room where her father’s air-conditioning unit sat.

When Valerie first made her daughter move into the attic the previous year, Rose didn’t have to check the ventilation room – because at that time the wall separating it from the attic had been completely sealed. Oh, there used to be a door alright – but Tony had taken it out just before he left, replacing it with a smooth particle-board panel (which he then painted, along with the rest of the wall, in a ghastly shade of ‘peach’ from an old paint can the previous owners had left in the shed).

Why? Her father had said he was ‘renovating his man cave’ – which, on reflection, didn’t make any sense at all. But neither Valerie nor Rose thought much about it at the time. They had bigger problems: Tony’s gambling addiction was one; the fact that he soon left his wife and daughter was another. In fact he left them the day after he finished painting the newly-installed panel. Valerie now saw the whole thing as some sort of act of spiteful vandalism. Or madness. Or both.

Anyway, the sealed wall only became an issue when, on the most recent new year’s day – one of the hottest days of summer – the air-conditioning broke down, and Valerie had to call repairers (at triple their usual rate). They had to cut a hole in the panel just to get to the unit. Valerie asked them to install a new door, which they did (at an inflated price).

That was how Rose came to have one extra place to check every night.

On this occasion (like all the others), she gingerly pulled the handle on the door and, with trembling hands, shone her torch beam around the tiny space from just outside the entrance (she never went in). Of course, nothing was in there other than the box-like air-conditioning unit and its large aluminium foil vent. She closed the door and repeated the check twice more.

Finally she had to wash her hands again. Only then was Rose Azzopardi ready for bed.

She owned her money. She owned the attic (for now). And she owned her compulsions – but they also owned her.

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