In 3000 words or less, write about a unique child who has been left orphaned when their parents leave them without saying anything. How does this child survive?
Left in the Attic
By, Zachary Katz-Stein
Ardent closed her eyes and hugged her knees into her chest, breathing in the familiar scent of dust and sweat that clung to her stockings. It had been...twenty-two days since she'd washed them and she'd worn them thirteen times...or had it been longer? She shook her head. Since what Ardent thought of as "The Accident," days had begun to blur together.
The creak of wood from directly below made Ardent catch her breath and squeeze her legs in tighter. She counted to ten, then to twenty before she allowed herself to breathe. She waited for the any sign of life below. Nothing. Muscles protesting shrilly, Ardent slowly uncurled and rose to her feet.
She was in her attic, surrounded on all sides by walls of boxes, moats of blanket-covered furniture, and guarded by framed photographs of her parents. She touched one of these as she passed, caressing the cracked glass. Though the attic was dimly lit by the moonlight through the dormer window, Ardent moved silently across the warped wood of the floor. When she reached the trap door she paused, touching the cool metal pull ring and closing her eyes.
She didn't know how, but sometimes when she did this she could tell if someone was in the hall below. Her ears would grow hot and her cheeks would burn, just as they had in The Time Before when Eric had kissed her cheek after class. That had been an exciting feeling though; this one made her afraid. She couldn't let people know she was still here, not after The Accident.
Ardent's ears and cheeks remained cool and pale. No one was there. Slowly, she pulled the trap door to the attic up and lowered the ladder into the hall. Quiet and quick as a shadow, she flowed down the ladder and started toward the stairs. These too she passed as quickly and quietly as she could. Now that she had broken cover, her best hope lay in speed and besides, she knew every grain of wood in that house, including which could be trusted to keep their mouths shut and which could not.
Her first stop was the bathroom. As hungry and thirsty as she was, certain calls of nature became unavoidable if one held one's bladder all day. That done, she turned toward the kitchen. She couldn't take much, Ardent reminded herself. Too much missing food would get her noticed. Her stomach growled audibly. But so would too little.
Carefully, Ardent took one slice of bread from the middle of two different loaves so that both were still the same length. Next, she stole a few slices of meat and a small bit of cheese. All of this was fairly routine. When she opened the freezer, however, her willpower was tested. There, on its own plate as though waiting especially for her, was a beautiful strawberry sundae.
It was perfect. Its vanilla mounds were topped with just the right amount of sauce. There were even a few freshly cut strawberries along the rim of the dish, just the way she liked it. Ardent swallowed and licked her lips, unable to take her eyes off the prize. How long had it been since she'd had ice cream? Thirty days? Fifty? One hundred? She wasn't sure; it seemed like a lifetime.
Ardent knew she shouldn't take it, knew it was probably a trap, but her hand started to reach toward the treat anyway.
"Mommy?" a voice called from the hall outside the kitchen. "Mom?"
Ardent pivoted around the refrigerator and sank to the floor as a young boy, maybe five years old, shuffled into the kitchen. The boy rubbed his eyes and looked around in confusion. "I'm here," a woman responded, stepping right past Ardent to wrap the boy in a tight hug.
Ardent squeezed herself further into the corner, not daring to believe the woman hadn't seen her, yet she hadn't said anything so maybe...
"What are you doing up at this hour sweetling?" Ardent heard the mother ask.
"I don't know..." the boy replied, a frown in his voice. "I was asleep, and then I had a feeling that it was important for me to come downstairs..."
His mother chuckled. "If that half frozen sundae is any indicator, I think I know what drew you..."
"It wasn't that!" the child replied indignantly. "I was saving it for later!"
"Uh-huh," the woman said. "Well, in that case, let's give your self-control a little help, and head back upstairs shall we?" Ardent heard footsteps retreating upstairs so she assumed the boy had agreed.
She lowered herself to the floor and slowly peeked around the cabinet at floor level. The coast was clear. Ardent reached the sanctuary of her attic without further incident. The trap door closed behind her and she breathed again.
Ardent moved to her little nest in the far corner. She had made her "bed" from old clothes, winter coats, and spare table settings that had been swallowed by the attic long ago. Nestling herself into the folds of fabric, Ardent drew comfort from the large writing desk that protected one side of her bed and from the wall of boxes that shielded the other. She was safe here.
She began to breathe slowly and deeply. Her muscles tensed and released. Her pulse still sounded in her ears. She had almost been caught. In fact, she thought the woman had seen her, but no. She couldn't have or else she would have reacted. Screamed probably. How else could she have reacted to finding Ardent still in the house?
Slowly, her body relaxed. Soon she was fast asleep...
...She was in her room. Ardent came awake slowly. Her thoughts were muddled as if she'd slept in later than usual. Then she sat bolt upright. She had slept more than usual and now she was late! She tore out of her room and hopped down the hall, trying to slip on her shoes. She stamped into them just in time to take the stairs two at a time, calling out, "Why didn't you wake me up? You know I hate being late!"
She reached the bottom of the stairs. "Mom!" she shouted. "Dad! Are you ready to go? "
"Hello?" she called out, suddenly nervous. Ardent began to wander. Something was wrong. She was definitely home, but somehow it didn't look right. It looked...older? The familiar furniture was worn and patched in ways she couldn't remember, and where were her parents? One generally left early to open the family bakery, but the other was always there to make sure she got to school safely.
Ardent could only remember one other time she had come down the stairs to find an empty house, and then they'd at least left a note on the table.
She walked quickly into the kitchen, certain that they must have remembered to leave her a note at least. Then she froze. She walked over and placed her hand on the smooth, well-worn wood of the kitchen table. Here was the problem, the thing that made Ardent's spine tingle: her family had just bought a new kitchen table. This table was worn, but it was also unmistakably the same. Her brain tried and failed to make sense of it. It was the same table and it wasn't.
Her shock carried her dazedly over to a window. She looked out and, again, had the strange, disconcerting feeling of looking at the familiarly impossible. The street was the same...and it wasn't. It looked more developed, the buildings looked bigger and older than they were yesterday. She shook her head.
The rattle of keys in a lock jerked her back to reality. Finally, she thought, that must be one of them now. She had started toward the door when it cracked open and unfamiliar voices drifted in. Ardent froze. She didn't know why but the idea of strangers with a key to her house, on top of the other shocks of the morning, terrified her. She dropped to the floor and rolled behind a couch as the door opened.
"As you can see, Lady, we haven't changed anything."
The sound of footsteps. Three? No, four. "I can see that," a female voice said. "It's exactly as I remember it." There was a strange catch in that voice, as though the memory was not entirely a pleasant one.
"Are you all right?" a different, slightly deeper, male voice asked.
"Yes," the woman said. "Or at least I will be. It's just been a very long time since we've been here, that stupid fight..."
"You couldn't have known."
"No," the woman sighed, "but I could have been less stubborn."
"This is the one you were looking for, isn't it?" the higher male voice asked.
"Yes," the woman said again, a smile in her voice this time. "We'll take it."
...Ardent woke up with a gasp and then had to hold her breath to keep from coughing as her sudden movement raised clouds of dust.
"I thought I might find you up here," a calm, familiar, woman's voice said.
Ardent jumped to her feet and whirled to face the intruder, mentally preparing for me worst. The woman would tell her that she was crazy and her parents were dead. She would say that Ardent would have to go to an orphanage and that she'd never see Eric again.
The woman smiled as if reading these thoughts in Ardent's eyes. Something about the smile spoke to Ardent. She recognized it. It was her mother's smile. "You're not crazy, and your parents aren't dead," the woman said. "Well, actually here they are, but don't worry you'll have many more years to spend with them and," she added with a conspiratorial wink, "you'll see plenty of Eric, I promise."
Ardent backed away quickly, bumping into the desk behind her. This woman was a mind-reader, a witch, who wanted to kill her. How else could she know what Ardent was thinking?
The woman's smile grew a little broader. "I'm not a mind-reader, or a witch, and I certainly don't want to kill you...or haven't you guessed yet? You don't really have to answer, I know you have." She brushed her straight black hair out of her eyes and smiled Ardent's mother's smile again. Her smile.
Ardent's eyes went to the crescent shaped scar on the back of the woman's wrist, reflexively touching the same spot on her own wrist. She'd gotten it after falling out of a tree and badly breaking her arm. "Hurts still sometimes, doesn't it?" the woman asked, her hand going to the same spot. "Funny the tricks that the mind plays on the body."
"H-how...?" Ardent managed to stammer.
"How did I know you were here? How is this possible? And, maybe your biggest question, why have I let you live in the attic for close to three months without saying anything when I surely must have remembered how torturous it was?" Ardent nodded and closed her mouth, ready to listen.
The woman sighed. "Well," she said, "the last question effectively answers the first doesn't it? I knew you were here because I remember being here myself twenty..." she thought for a moment, "...twenty five or so years ago. I'm honestly still not entirely sure how it's possible and that's part of the reason I let you hide in your personal little hell for three months."
"The other reason is that I'm afraid we'll need the skills you developed here. The ability to move silently, the feel of wood under your feet and how to tell when it's going to creak. We'll need to know how to hide, how to steal, how to feel if the adjacent room is empty. Most of all we'll need to know how to survive without anyone or anything around." The woman, the older Ardent, shook her head.
"Our life hasn't been - won't be - easy. You'll have to deal with the Snatchers when you get where you'll go next, then there'll be your little run in with Principal Kelledorn. Let me tell you now, this is a time when the 'principal' is not your 'pal.'" Ardent's vision blurred and she heard a ringing in her ears as the woman talked and talked, apparently dying to get twenty five years of baggage off her chest...
"...fight," the woman concluded. "You'll have to fight I'm afraid, you won't want to, but you'll have to. I - " Suddenly the stream of words stopped and she looked down at Ardent's glazed look with surprise and amusement. "Good God," she said, "I remember feeling like that. You haven't taken in a word I've said have you? No, of course not, I remember."
She gazed over Ardent's head now as if looking into the past. "The damn woman wouldn't shut up. She kept going on and on and when I finally began to believe I could time travel, I swore to myself that I wouldn't make the same mistake." Her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. "Yet, here I am, prattling at you just as she - I - did before, ah Ardent. Time is such a strange thing - especially for us."
Again she looked up, seeming to think for a moment before continuing even more seriously. "We don't have much time left, but I need to say two more things before you go: first, don't trust the gap-toothed man, you'll know him when you see him, and second," the woman smiled. "When you feel like giving up, when they have you trapped, outsmarted and outgunned, remember this: our story has a happy ending. Everything will work out. Goodbye now child, enjoy our life."
Ardent was about to ask what she meant. Was this woman - her older self - going to leave her to her attic now? Then she felt sick. The room, which had merely blurred before, began to spin in earnest. The ringing in her ears turned to a roar and then the room went black...
...When Ardent opened her eyes she saw a bright light and a white ceiling. She looked down. She was lying in a hospital bed, tucked under too warm covers, in a gown, with an IV sticking out of her arm.
"How are you feeling?" a pleasant male voice asked.
Ardent looked left and saw a gap toothed nurse leaning over her with a needle. He followed her gaze to the syringe in his hand and smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about this," he said. "It's just to help with the pain."
What pain? Ardent felt fine, except for the IV in her arm. There was a bang out in the hallway as a janitor and doctor collided and the gap toothed man glanced automatically toward the door. Ardent carefully but quickly removed the IV and rolled out of bed.
She hit the floor on all fours, cat-like, and scrambled under the bed.
"What the - ?" the nurse exclaimed as he turned back to find her bed empty. He started around the foot of the bed to see if she was hiding behind it. Ardent began to crawl silently toward the door. By the time the nurse stooped to look under the bed she was nearly there.
Ardent ran and didn't look back.
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