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Joy in the Attic

by Julie Wornan

After the usual tasteless supper, the family dispersed, leaving Mom alone to clean up in the kitchen. The boys went upstairs to do their homework. Joan, following slowly behind, could hear Dad shouting something at Mom over his shoulder as he stomped off into his study.

Joan knew she ought to help Mom with the dishes, but she so longed for solitude and peace. Climbing the worn red-carpeted stairs, she recalled her mother telling her how, as a child, she had dreamed of living one day in a big house with a staircase covered in carpet. Mom had got that wish — for what it was worth.

Joan stepped lightly so as not to disturb Squiggle the cat, who had taken to hiding under the stairs ever since Hank had thrown a rotten apple at him, injuring his ear. She wished Squiggle could come upstairs and keep her company, but Dad had made it a rule that no cat was allowed upstairs.

Passing the boys’ room Joan heard Brad’s timid voice: “Hank? Can you help me with this algebra problem?”

“Do you think Rumpelstiltskin does my homework for me? I figure it out for myself, and so can you!”

Her own lonely bedroom at the back of the house didn’t tempt her. On an impulse, she turned right and opened the door leading to the attic.

It was quiet as Joan climbed the attic steps, clutching her thin cardigan about her. The attic was chilly in February and smelled of sawdust and machine grease. The fading light filtered dimly through the narrow unclean window. Joan touched the cold flat platform of the drill press, the cold wheel of the lathe.

The machines were for the boys, not her. She had watched them at work sometimes. Then last Hallowe’en, she’d had the idea of making herself a mask from a flat round piece of wood she’d found in the discard barrel. She was just drilling holes for the eyes when her father’s angry hand collared her.

“Joan! You little idiot, get away from here before you hurt yourself!”

The attic hadn’t seemed a welcoming place for her, after that.

No place in the house was. Neither was school. “Joan, Joan, the Skelibone!” was what she’d heard her schoolmates chanting at recess one day. Other girls were thin. Sylvia, pretty Sylvia with the long hair, was thin, but nobody laughed at Sylvia. Joan was Joan and that’s why everyone despised her and she knew it would always be like that. No reason. That’s just the way it was. She’d stopped speaking to anyone at school. Better to just be quiet and unnoticed.

A wooden chest with old toys stood against the wall opposite the window. Joan lifted the lid, vaguely hoping the old memories would cheer her. There was a naked doll with a hole in its head where Hank had thought he could make it into a puppet — without Joan’s knowledge or consent, of course. And poor Teddyweddly, singed on one side when Brad had thrown it on a bonfire “like Guy Forks” he’d said, or something like that. Neither toy had been fit to play with since. She closed the chest.

Then she noticed faint gurgling sound coming from behind a small door in the wall. Water pipes? Or what? It was creepy, but her curiosity won. She pulled the door open.

In the dim storage cupboard, she could just discern a red thing like a transparent membrane filled with strawberry juice — or blood. It was vibrating. Throbbing. Sort of like a heart the size of a beach ball. It smelled like liver.

“What is this?” Joan spoke to herself, but the thing answered.

“Red,” it said. “You can call me Red.”

“Red,” said Joan. Although the thing ought to have been disgusting, the more she looked at it, the more it fascinated her. “What are you doing here?”

“I am filling with joy,” said Red, in a lugubrious voice.

“You are very round,” observed Joan.

“I am round and big and growing. I have been sucking the joy from your family ever since you came to this house.”

“Your family has not much joy left,” it complained, “and I’m getting hungry. No, don’t pull away! Touch me. You’ll see, I’m warm and soft.”

It was soft and warm, not slimy at all. Joan let it ooze around her hand and suck on her fingers.

“Give me some joy,” it murmured. “Think of something that makes you happy.”

Joan thought of Andrew, the boy with the smiling eyes and freckle-nose.

Red gurgled softly. Then Joan remembered Andrew smiling at Sylvia and turning the rope with Madelyn while Sylvia skipped, and he didn’t look at Joan at all, while Joan just stood watching them and eating an apple left over from lunch. She felt tears coming. Red was not pleased.

“You’ve got precious little joy in you,” Red grumbled, but didn’t release her fingers.

Then Joan knew what she must do. Clutching the repulsive thing with all her might — it was no longer sucking but struggling — she lugged it across the attic floor to the window. But maybe the window had been closed too long or painted too thickly, she couldn’t get it open. She seized a hammer from the workbench and smashed the glass. Then she leaned out to hurl the thing over like a bowling ball. But it had latched itself onto her hand and wouldn’t go free. Joan and the thing tumbled out together.

The police were surprised that the body of a ten-year-old child could have contained so much blood.

Then there was crying and hugging. People came to the house with gifts of food and comfort. Mother sobbed, “How could we know she was so unhappy?” and Father said he had been insensitive, but from now on everything would be different. They would go away to the mountains for a real family vacation, for once. The four of them. And Hank helped Brad with his algebra, and even Squiggle the cat came out of hiding and scampered happily about the house.

Copyright © 2013 by Julie Wornan

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