“The divorce papers,” she slid the stapled sheets under his nose as he read the morning paper. “The lawyer dropped them off yesterday.” She sat across from him clutching her mug to her chest.
“We’re really going through with this then?” He sighed; his soft brown eyes met hers before turning to the document.
“We’ve tried everything Jake; fighting, talking, therapy, the whole shebang. We agreed we’re better parent’s for Dylan apart than together.”
“I know, but it seems so real now.”
“Are you having second thoughts?”
“I love you Mags, but I don’t think I can handle a second marriage to you,” he flashed his easygoing grin. “I’m enjoying the hair free shower drain way too much. But what about Dylan, will he be okay?” She brought the steaming cup to her lips, the rich coffee slithered down her throat; setting off caffeinated fireworks throughout her body.
“As long as he knows we both love him and we’re here for him no matter what, then he’ll make it through.” His dry cracked fingers caressed her knuckles, like they did countless times before. “We’re in this, together right?” she whispered, thinking of past nights and difficult conversations.
“I want to be here for him, and you if you need me. It might look a bit different, but we’ll make this family work.” He glanced at the clock, “speaking of which, Dylan, get your butt in gear, we gotta get moving!” Frantic feet rumbled above them, racing to the bedroom, back to the bathroom then tumbled over the stairs. Dressed in his oversized green jacket and neon toque, Dylan scurried to the kitchen.
“Mom, where’s my backpack?”
“By the door, I packed your lunch, it’s in the front pouch.” He tried to squirm from her kiss, but she planted a small one on his head before he escaped.
“You’ll get him after school?” Jake asked stuffing the rolled papers in his denim jacket.
“I’ll be there,” she offered him the breakfast plate, “take the rest of the bagel.”
“C’mon dad! We’re going to be late; we can’t let Lindsey get their first.”
“No of course not,” he grinned snatching the leftover breakfast delight.
“Thanks mom, bye mom!” Dylan yelled running out the door.
“Thanks mom,” Jake saluted with the bagel.
As spring thawed winter’s grip, Maggie accepted her parent’s proposal of moving into her Grandma’s old farmhouse. Her father and Jake spent most of the spring repairing it and adding the modern touches. By the time Dylan’s school year ended it was move in ready. The date was set, the plan in order, and the truck arrived- albeit forty minutes late. She loaded the van, placing the last box inside as Jake pulled up in his dirty red pickup. Dylan jumped from the truck holding his robot action figure under his arm.
“Mom, are you going now?”
“The trucks packed and I’m hitting the road. Go upstairs and get your stuff.” He hesitated, clinging closer to his father’s side.
“Don’t worry rugrat,” Jake tussled his hair, “she’s setting up Great Grandma’s old place so it’ll be ready for you. You’ll spend the week with her then come Friday it’s you and me for our boy’s weekend. Grab the box we talked about, with the stuff you want at mom’s and throw it in back.”
“I don’t want half my stuff at mom’s at want it all here. With both of you.” They exchanged glances, he shrugged rubbing the back of his head.
“Honey, we talked about this before. Mommy and Daddy are going to live separately from now on. And you get to visit both homes whenever you like.”
“But why do you have to live in two different houses? No one else’s parents do this. Why is our family the weird one?”
“We’re not weird, Dylan, we’re different that’s all. Not all families are the same.”
“Your mom’s right, different can be a good thing.”
“Well, you have a choice of two prime locations!” He kneeled, placing an arm over the boy’s shoulder. “How many times did we go to boring Adam’s house for the same dinosaur party? Like a hundred times right, but you, you my friend have options. You can have birthdays here with our awesome playset in the backyard. Or choose to have scary movies with your friends at mom’s and roast marshmallows in the backyard.”
“Jake, I don’t have a fire pit at Grandma’s.”
“Roasted marshmallows in the backyard?” Dylan’s eyes alit with wonder.
“I’ll call Uncle Mike and we’ll make you one.”
“Is that sorta thing allowed?” She asked Jake.
“You’re off the highway and have a nice square acreage around you. I’ll head over to the office and get Sam look up permits and whatnot. We’ll get it sorted out.”
“Mom do you think we can,” he glances at his father, “if we get permits and stuff, can we?”
“I always wanted a cozy place to watch the stars,” she smiled.
“See Dylan, two houses aren’t such a bad thing after all!” The boy nodded and rushed into the house to grab his belongings. “Hope you don’t mind be saying that.”
“You gave him something to look forward too. Plus, I bet building a firepit is easy compared to a whole house.”
“If I wasn’t in city limits, I’ll have a firepit right back here,” he smiled. “Are you sure you’re okay with living out there, I can let you keep the house.”
“It’s not too far, the neighborhoods’ been expanding and they put in a Super Center near by.”
“That’s the foundation of a new city.” He grinned, opening the truck door for her.
The Gilbert farm had been in her family for generations. Maggie had fond memories of the two floored whitewashed country home. She recalled rowdy family BBQs sprawled over the grassy yard. Playing hide and seek with her cousins between the corn stalks. But her fondest memory was Grandma’s famous three berry pie. But everything changed after Grandpa left. The parties were less frequent as Grandma grew into a recluse. Despite her mom’s best effort to care for the aging woman, the house was in disrepair. Every time they brought up selling the place Grandma vehemently refused.
“My great grand daddy built this place with his own hands. Only God himself will rip me from my land. God as my witness I’ll not abandon my child.”
Her last statement puzzled her mom most. At that point, all her children were grown. Even her grandchildren were starting their own families. Her dad chalked it up to old age and the family forgot about it. Maggie thought of this as she pulled up the winding dirt driveway. The familiar house on the hill stood in defiance against the tall weeds engulfing the land. A tin roof veranda offered shade from the hot summer sun; a perfect place for morning coffee. The second floor was a maze of added-on rooms stuffed with forgotten furniture.
Below the peaked roof, stood a permanent fixture of her childhood; the tiny attic window. Despite how many cousins tried to explore, none succeeded. Grandpa guarded that room like a hound dog in the junk yard. Of course, there was the usual excuses: it was falling a part, loose nails, and itching insulation. You name it, each one of them received a different line. She parked around back, in front of the crumbling shed. Out of habit she glanced to the door where Grandma would greet her. But today she was alone in the dusty driveway surveying the overgrown weeds claiming the back porch. The thought of pruning them was exhausting enough, but she couldn’t turn back now. She signed the papers, the divorce was final, and she had no where else to go.
It was when she opened the trunk that the hair on the back of her neck stood straight. Goosebumps prickled her skin, despite the heatwave smothering the area. Behind the stained sheer curtains and grime caked windows, a set of unfamiliar eyes sent a chill slithering through her spine. Reason told her she was alone but a whisper tickling her ear said otherwise. She walked from room to room but each step felt like a trespass across enemy lines. To say she felt uncomfortable was inaccurate. For one, it assumed the run-down home could provide comfort. Secondly, uncomfortable failed describe the gnawing fear that someone else was inside the house.
To her relief, her friend Laura planned a quiet housewarming party the day Dylan arrived. Her carefree attitude was a breath of fresh air; soothing her skittish nerves. Dylan laughed and told jokes, but she saw the frown when he was alone. Change was hard, its a mountain to climb, and she worried he would struggle. They were both navigating new waters, at times she didn’t know how to make him smile. In the morning he complained that the creaking house kept him up at night. He’s getting use to a new place, she told herself. Despite occupying his day with decorating and exploring, he woke with new grievances. He told her of voices whispering in his ears and of a person watching him sleep. An overactive imagination, she theorized, he’ll get over it soon enough.
When Jake picked him up Friday afternoon, Dylan asked about the attic; a place she never mentioned. Grandma sealed the entrance to the stairway years ago. She reiterated the same excuses told to her. This time she added, it’s off limits until the handyman (she had no intention on hiring) fixed it. He left with his father and she was alone once more. The creaking beams and boards offered no comfort. In the absence of strong winds or a summer storm the house had no reason to shift as much as it did. The house felt restless, as if it teetered atop of a pin. She opened a bottle of wine and took a generous sip to cut the anxiety bubbling in the air. Around nine, a bit too late for him to be awake, she received an ‘I love you mom, good night,’ text from Jake’s phone. Her heart warmed and she fell asleep on the couch content that, despite everything, her son still loved her.
A thunderous banging jolted her awake; the remote on the armrest, crashed to the floor. Above her the second floor rattled, shaking the ceiling fan. In her half-awake state, she yelled for Dylan to return to bed. But reality dawned; she was alone. Yanking the blanket tight around her shoulders, she listened as the stomping stretched the length of the house. Starting in one room, through the hall, then into the next. Terror snaked through her body as she sat motionless on the couch.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The sound rattled the worn floorboards. When it reached the back bedroom, it stopped. Silence cloaked the home, and she exhaled the breath she was holding. On shaking feet, she stumbled to the front door, gripping the wall as she moved, and checked the lock. It wasn’t tampered with and remained secure. Tip toeing through the kitchen, she kept her back to the counter and found the back door locked. Steadying her shaky breath, she headed to the couch, where she would try to sleep. Grabbing a knife from the holder as she passed.
The next week, she worked from her makeshift office in the kitchen. Dylan, enjoying the summer holiday, kept to himself either by reading out loud or combing through his Lego bins. The midnight stomping ceased and Dylan’s presence eased her anxiety. Mid week they ran out of milk, a normal occurrence in any household, but what happened after, was far from average. She left Dylan alone and upon her return the house settled into its unusual eerie stillness.
“Dylan, I’m home,” but there was no answer. “Dylan?” she called again, checking every room. He wasn’t in his bedroom, or the bathroom, and the first floor was empty. She reached the room at the end of the hall and pushed it open. Stacks of boxes, abandoned bookcases, and furniture draped in dusty tarps are crammed into the space. In the far corner a strip of faded wallpaper curls over the carpet, revealing the lost attic door. On the floor sits Dylan, crossed legged with his chin to his chest. She clawed through the obstacles and nudged his shoulder.
“Mum?” His brown eyes stared blankly into hers.
“Yes honey, it’s me, what are you doing in here?”
“I’m playing hide and seek with Peter. He’s supposed to find me.”
That night she texted Jake, informing him of Peter. Dylan explained he was a boy his age and he liked to play hide and seek. Peter was lonely so he offered to play with him to make him feel better. Jake was always the optimist, his carefree attituded was what she fell in love with. Which was why she wasn’t surprised with his reply: ‘Don’t worry Mags’.
When Jake returned with Dylan, he explained the boy had trouble sleeping over the weekend and was cranky. But it was worse than that. He lashed out against every task she asked of him. She made his favorite meal but he threw the chicken fingers in her face, demanding pie instead. Bath and bedtime were a war zone. The only peace she received was when he was in his room talking with Peter. He spent hours talking to himself although she could never make out their conversation. She tried to eavesdrop, but the creaky stair gave her away and he slammed the door in her face. When she noticed the plastic cups were missing, she called to him to return his dishes to the sink. He, like he had the last three days, ignored her.
“Dylan, bring your dishes down,” she called from the bottom of the stairs. She climbed three steps, “Dylan, this needs to stop. Quit what you’re doing and bring your dishes down. I won’t ask again.”
His door creaked open, and his form stood in the gap. He didn’t say anything, but the way he regarded her cut her to the core. There was no love in his eyes, no recognition of who she was. He threw a cup down the stairs, it hit the wall above her head. She straightened her back, climbed another step; she was the adult, he will listen to her. But his onslaught continued; every cup he hoarded was flung, each missed their mark by inches.
She reached the landing when the first plate was flung. Tiny porcelain pieces littered the carpet and tumbled over the steps. Her feet retreated as more came fast and hard, whizzing by her head. As the last plate shatters, she’s taken shelter in the kitchen, watching the glass rain over the floor. Her trembling fingers dialed Jakes number. No answer.
She sends a text: ‘Dylan threw plates at my head. What the hell happened last weekend?’
The phone rings: “Mags, Jesus are you okay? Where is he now?”
“In his room talking to Peter, he’s been in there all week. Did anything happen when you were together? Did he say anything about Peter?”
“Saturday, he kept to himself, I thought he needed alone time so I let him relax. Heard him talking to someone, might have been Peter.”
“What did they talk about?”
“I dunno kid stuff, I guess. They were reading Peter Pan. Talking about this make-believe world where parents didn’t exist.”
“And that’s not odd to you?”
“It’s Peter Pan and Neverland, Mags. There’s no harm in Peter Pan.”
“Something’s not right Jake. He attacked me. He’s never done anything close to that before.”
“I dunno, maybe he’s acting out. I don’t think he meant to hurt you.”
“You didn’t see the look in his eyes. I don’t feel safe here.”
“Maggie, he’s a kid, don’t worry about it.”
“Can you talk to him? Maybe there’s something going on he can’t talk to me about. You know, a guy thing.”
“Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll stop by after work. Just hang in there, we’ll sort this out.”
The adrenalin slipped from her body as she swept the last of the glass into the trash bin. Exhausted, confused, and unsafe in her own home, she retreated to her bedroom. In a cocoon of blankets, she listened to the eerie one-sided conversation floating into the hallway. His door creaked open, her body froze, and she chided herself for being afraid of her child. Tip toeing from her bed she watched Dylan from the gap in her door. His speech was off, like an adult in a child’s body. The way he gestured to the empty air suggested an awareness of his body that the clumsy child never had. But it was the haunting conversation that made chills run through her spine. That compared with the silence as the other spoke, then the hearty laugh that followed. Everything felt wrong. He headed downstairs, made his way to the kitchen, and made himself a sandwich.
Grey clouds swallowed the sun, casting a dark shadow over the countryside, and offered the prospect of much needed rain. She watched the swirling plumes, living in fear, until Jake arrived. The circles under his eyes and the way he slouched told her he was tired from the day’s work. But his presence eased her fear. She waited downstairs as he spoke to Dylan alone. Their mumble voices float over the stairs but the closed door concealed their words. His oversized work boots clump over the stairs, he motioned her to the kitchen, rubbing the back of his neck as he spoke.
“He says he’s sorry.”
“I need more than sorry.”
“I know, I’m working on it. He’s pretty upset about what happened. He said he got angry and he couldn’t stop. He says he’s mad about us not together. I was thinking I’ll take him to my place and let you both cool down.”
Pathetic sniffles replaced the laughter that only moments before filled the upstairs. From the doorway across the hall, she watched Jake carry the distraught child in his arms. When they reached the bottom step, Dylan chanced a glance backwards. Dark eyes alit with mischief met her disapproving scowl. A wide sharped tooth grin slit his mouth from ear to ear. It crawled over her skin and pulled at the curls at the back of her neck. In a blink it was gone. The back door slammed, the pickup pulled out of the driveway and once again she was alone.
She walked the empty rooms trying to cement the broken pieces of her life together. Something gnawed at her gut as she struggled with the missing piece. Her mind recounted every conversation and interaction; trying to decipher the code. He left his bed undisturbed. When was the last time she saw him sleep? She passed through the dust cloaked forgotten rooms like a ghost. Unaware of the dirt, the ripped carpet, and the abandoned furniture. She mourned her son, their life together, although she didn’t understand why. In Grandma’s room, she glanced out the window, wishing she could vanish in the trees. Leaving the pain of life behind.
In the corner, the faded floral wallpaper curled over the floor. The yellow glue, ancient and exposed, revealed the crooked door to the attic. Each foot fall created a dribble of dirt tumbling from the wooden steps. Her heavy heart drags her to the top. She always imagined the space bigger, but the squat peaked roof left the room cramped; child size. Hunched over she tried to avoid stepping on the rotting floorboards. The remnants of insulation would provide little warmth against the frigid winters.
But, despite the fact, there was a thread bare mattress by window facing the front yard. Wrapped in the faded wool blanket is a familiar shape. With trembling fingers, she pulled the blanket aside. He looked like he was sleeping. A peaceful slumber only childhood’s innocent could produce. But Dylan’s skin was ice, his chest didn’t move and no breath floated in the air.
She sprung into action; scooping him into her arms she rushed from the attic, down the stairs and into the kitchen where she left her phone. Thousands of thoughts and fears zoomed through her brain. But one shouted loudest; call for help. She knew Jake was closest. She clutched Dylan to her chest and dialed the number. Three rings and no answer. She can’t lose him, not her precious boy. Her finger paused over the redial button. The fog lifted and the voice in the back of her mind screamed loud and clear. If Dylan is here, then who did Jake take?
Peter… no, he isn’t real.
She waited for Jake to return her call; he always did. But as she stared in the silence, holding their son who was cold to the touch, her eyes lifted for a moment. That was when she saw the missing steak knife from the holder. She called again, her heart pounding between each ring. No answer, but the beep of the voice mail:
‘Hey, you reached Jake and Dylan, we’re not here, but leave a message after the beep and we’ll call you right back.’
End of Part One of Four.
Chapter Two: The Lost Boy in the Attic