Attic is an original short story of mine. It takes place in a girls’ boarding school on a spooky night. This is a mild horror story, and contains some unpleasant descriptions.
There was a thing about attics. Shelley used to say attics were liminal places, that they were somehow outside the daily normal, places on the borders where reality went a little weird. Then again, Shelley was their star pupil in Latin, French, and anything else that had to do with languages and she was always a little too fond of big words. She was always saying a teacher was vexing her or commenting on the atmospheric pressure of a cloudy day.
When it came to attics, though, she was right. There was definitely something about them. Something that Corey, who was not at the top of the class in anything except maybe sneaking out, would call weird.
There was always a weird corner that shouldn’t be there when measured against the outside of the building, a dusty chest that no one had the key to, or at the very least a broken chair that, in the gloom, looked exactly like a crouched person. Corey loved it. Attics were like her, including the fact that most of the other girls were a little afraid of it.
The north attic was her favourite. It stretched the length of the north wing, stretched right over her head and the other girls in the dormitory every night when they lay down. Only a single ceiling become attic floor between them, right above their faces if they’d only lie on their backs and open their eyes. Then again, most of the girls didn’t lie back in their bed and stare up at the ceiling after lights out. They turned over and whispered at their friends, or pulled a smuggled flashlight from under their pillows and read, or in every once in a blue moon simply went to sleep.
Corey looked at the ceiling, and imagined the attic beyond. Sometimes there were noises up there, creaking and thumping. It was an old building, the nuns would say. A hospital before it was a school, and a monastery before that. Just the building settling, its old stone walls and wooden beams leaning in the wind, sinking a millimetre or so deeper into the muddy ground.
Those were the nights that the attic was really weird. Corey always made sure to go up there when there was a storm, and to take Shelley whenever she was willing. She was willing surprisingly often, so long as there wasn’t a test the next day, and she was the only one who ever seemed to be interested in going up to the attic with her.
Which is why it was a bit surprising when Nanda and Lia padded in one night and approached Corey’s bed, Lia in the lead.
“Hello Cornelia,” Lia said. Nanda was holding her hand, standing one step back.
“Hello Cornelia,” Corey echoed. “You know you can call me Corey, right? This is gonna get confusing otherwise.”
“Right,” Lia said. She was visibly fighting the urge to step back. Maybe it was Corey’s smile. It tended to have that effect on people. “Here’s to uncreative parents, right?”
“Right,” said Corey, and smiled wider. She was named after her grandfather, herself, and she doubted creativity had been much of a factor in the process.
Lia returned the smile, though hers was a little worried around the edges. She seemed to have some trouble coming up with a reply, and Corey was just about to prod her again when Nanda leaned in. She was a little thing, and her hair was coming loose from her braid, falling into her eyes.
“We heard you like the attics,” she said softly.
Corey nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“There’s something in the south attic,” Nanda said. “Making noises at night, right above our dorm.”
“Are you sure it isn’t,” Corey sat up straight on her bed, wrinkled her nose in a parody of sister Marguerite, “just the building settling?”
Shelley, in the bed next to Corey’s, snorted. The other two girls seemed less inclined to laugh at her joke, with Lia even frowning.
“We’re sure,” she said. “Would you take a look?”
Corey hesitated. On the one hand, she didn’t want to become some sort of attic janitor for the rest of the school, someone they could call in whenever they felt like it. On the other: the south attic. The north and south wing attics weren’t directly connected. Both wings were taller than the central mass of the building, which meant that even if she could manage to break through the wall at the end of the north attic, all that would get her was a long stretch of empty air and then the wall of the south attic.
The only way to get to that attic was through the south wing. As Corey’s dorm was in the north wing, she had no excuse to be there after lights out. That still wouldn’t have stopped her if she’d had a friend who could have hidden her in the dark until the sisters had gone to bed, and in the morning so she could get back to where she was supposed to have been all along.
Up until now, she hadn’t had anyone to do that.
“What does it sound like?” she asked.
Lia and Nanda exchanged a look. “Kind of like,” Nanda started and raked her nails along Corey’s wooden bedframe.
“But louder,” Lia added. “Heavier. Like someone’s moving crates, or dragging something sharp.”
“Could be the wind,” Shelley offered.
“And every now and then,” Lia said, leaning closer still, “this screeching.”
“Rats?” Shelley said.
“Weird,” said Corey. “I’ll go. You two should come along, you know what we’ll be looking for.”
Lia did in fact take a step back now, but she was stopped by Nanda, who didn’t move. “Okay,” Nanda said.
“Nanda,” Lia whispered, “I don’t want to go up there.”
Nanda squeezed Lia’s hand. “The three of us, together.”
“Four,” said Shelley. She put her book down on her night stand and stood. “I’ve never been to the south attic before.”
It wasn’t quite night yet, and the nuns hadn’t started their most vigorous rounds. Still, if they caught wind of Shelley and Corey, they were sure to pay extra attention later on, checking their beds specifically instead of just glancing into the room. Lia lead the way as a lookout, scouting the upstairs hallway between the wings before motioning the rest of them through. Lights out was officially at ten and it was only nine thirty, but while the ceiling lamps were on, outside seemed darker than ever. Each time they passed a window, the darkness seemed to press against the glass, heavy and eager.
Lia lead them to a storage closet a few doors down from the dorm and pointed at the ceiling. There was something there, a panel in the ceiling without a handle or a lock. “That should get us up to the attic.”
“You’re not sure?” said Corey.
“I’ve never gone up there.” Lia hunched her shoulders, looked away. “But this is the top floor. If that hatch goes anywhere, it’s the attic.”
“That’s fair,” said Corey. “Do we have a ladder?”
“No, but there are chairs.”
There were plenty of chairs in the closet, and even an abandoned desk. Corey piled one of the chairs on top of the desk and found that she had to be careful not to hit her head on the ceiling if she stood right on top of the pile. She reached up and pressed her hands against the panel, gave it a good shove. It gave, and popped up with a shower of dust and grit. There were no hinges, so Corey slid the whole thing out of the way. That left her with an open square in the ceiling filled with dust and darkness.
“I’m going up,” said Corey, as she braced her hands on either side of the hole. It was a little awkward, as the pile of furniture she was standing on wasn’t terribly stable, so she leaned as much weight as possible on the edges of the hatch and pulled herself up.
It was no less dark now she was through the hatch. Still, she could tell the space was huge. A few grimy windows and the occasional gap in the wooden planks that made up the floor, through which light shone from below. Rows and mountains of indistinct shapes. Dust swirled in the light from down in the storage room. And a faint scratching from one corner.
Corey knelt, held out both hands and said: “Lia, you’re next.”
Down in the storage closet, Lia muttered something but chambered onto the pile of furniture nonetheless. She balanced on the chair and reached, grabbing Corey’s hands. Her fingers were cold, fingertips like icecubes. Corey pulled her up through the hatch, onto the attic floor next to her.
“It’s so dark up here,” Lia whispered.
Corey smiled and pushed her flashlight into Lia’s hands. “Nanda,” she called down, and offered her hands again. “You’re next.”
“Leaving me till last, are you?” Shelley said. She sounded serious, nearly reproachful, but Corey knew her and could see the slight upwards curl of her lips.
“You know it,” Corey answered. “You’re always last on my list.” She grabbed Nanda and pulled her up next to her friend. Lia had the flashlight in her hands and was swinging the light around to various bits of the attic. One of the hulking shapes turned out to be a bedframe, stood up on its side. There was no mattress, just a bedframe, casting weird shadows on the boxes piled up behind it.
“This place is so big,” Nanda said.
“Cold, too,” said Shelley, already reaching up to Corey for a hand. Shelley was heavier than the other two girls, but she helped herself along more readily. She was also the only one who stood to take a proper look around.
“What do we do now?” Lia said. She stood too, but reluctantly, holding the flashlight in both hands.
“We have a look around,” said Corey. “Don’t wander off, and let me know if you hear the weird noise.”
Lia snorted. “I’m pretty sure you’ll notice even if we don’t.”
Corey chuckled. She started off towards one of the windows, squeezing between the abandoned bedframe and a glass fronted display cabinet. The glass was dusty enough that she couldn’t really see if there was anything inside.
The south attic was full of those sort of things. Crammed in almost haphazardly, covered in dust, it was a maze of abandoned things. In that way, it was much like the north attic. It seemed to be the same size too, stretching the entire length of the south wing. Above their heads, the roof rose to a peak but by the walls it was low, crouching down over the windows.
Something creaked and scratched. Corey narrowed her eyes into the gloom, but really, there wasn’t much use. She only knew a vague direction, and everything around her was dark shapes, dissolving into furniture only when Lia aimed the flashlight at it.
“Was that the noise?”
“No,” Nanda said quietly.
“Too bad,”Corey said. “Which way is your dorm?”
Nanda pointed, and Lia shakily turned the flashlight in that direction. Nothing but more furniture, rolled up carpets, boxes and boxes. Corey set off between an armoire with a missing door and a dusty stack of wood, motioning behind her for the others to follow.
It wasn’t so different from the north attic so far. This one was a bit more dusty, probably because no one came up here regularly. The north attic was more lived in, thanks to Corey’s visits and her occasional rearranging of things. She’d built herself a little sitting room up there, an old carpet and a couple of chairs, a few candles and a tattered curtain to use as a tablecloth.
The south attic was untouched. Corey ached to pull open every drawer she passed, open each box. It was unexplored territory, just waiting to be rummaged around in.
As they walked, a section of light filtering through the floorboards under them flicked off, and a muffled voice spoke.
“Lights out,” Lia whispered. “Do you think they noticed we’re not there?”
The four of them waited until everything below them was quiet again, and then Shelley shook her head. “There would’ve been a lot more commotion. Currently everything seems calm down there.”
The four of them waited for a moment longer, eyes on the floorboards. The only sounds were a soft scurrying and an occasional muffled voice from the girls below. The light did not turn back on.
“Well then, looks like we’re good,” Corey started to say, but found her voice drowned out by a different sound.
It was loud and rattling, something dragged, bumping against the uneven floorboards. It was right behind them. As if on cue, there was a keening sharp enough to cut.
On one side of Corey, Lia had grabbed her and Nanda huddled tight, one girl whispering frantically and the other quiet. On her other side, Shelley had reached over, her touch lighter and her eyes searching in the gloom of the attic. Lia had dropped the flashlight and it now lay on the floor, illuminating only the floorboards and a couple of chair legs.
Corey waited, but it was quiet again. Just the usual creaking and scratching of an old building that probably had rats. “I’m guessing that was the noise.”
“It’s a ghost, it’s a ghost and it’s going to murder us,” Lia said, words tumbling over each other. “We should never have come here, we’re all so dead.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Corey. “There are no ghosts here.”
She turned, squinting into the darkness. All around them, silhouettes of furniture, rolled up carpets, stacks and stacks of boxes. Dark shapes in the darkness. Angular and smooth, squat and tall and shining with glass all jumbled into one attic. An old blackboard stood at an odd angle, reflecting the light from outside. Against its inky surface, something tall and thing like a leg from an upturned chair or maybe a coat rack. Corey looked again, and the surface of the blackboard stared back at her, unbroken.
“Where did it go,” she breathed. No one tried to answer, which was just as well because only a moment later, something furry lashed out from the gloom, sharp claws hooking in Nanda’s dress. The dress tore, the sound almost as loud as Lia’s shriek.
Corey whirled but there was the skittering again and now it was behind them, then to their right. It lashed out again, paw furry and backlit in the light of the dropped flashlight and this time Shelley called out, clutching her arm as a metallic scent joined the dust in the air.
The scattering turned, closing on Shelley to strike again. Corey stooped, grabbed the flashlight and threw it. It tumbled, still on, over and past a stack of old carpets. In the gloom, something hissed.
She motioned behind her and Shelley stepped back, herding both of the other girls back with her free arm.
“What’s she doing?” Nanda asked. Lia had stopped talking in favour of a sort of breathless whimpering.
“Just stay back,” said Shelley. This wasn’t her first time up in an attic with Corey.
The scraping sound came again, from the other side of the blackboard. It was a sound with weight. Corey dropped her skirt, pulled her blouse over her head. One of her nails briefly snagged in the fabric. She wanted to swear, but decided against it as she felt her mouth shift further from a strictly human configuration. Longer, wider. A great deal more teeth.
Her arms, always hairy by human standards, were now as dark as the attic’s gloom, hair creeping silently up and over to cover her shoulders, her legs. The floorboards creaked with her next step and she felt like she was finally standing straight, seeing the world from its proper point of view. She unfolded, her head higher than before, her arms and shoulders wider. Still standing on her hind legs, she opened her mouth for a deep breath.
Once again, the similarities to the north attics struck her. She could smell the same dust, the same mould and damp and chalk and the smell of the people below, filtered up through the floorboards. Corey huffed, a deep rumble to her breath, and sniffed again. There was an acrid smell in front and to the left. Sharp like rat droppings, but musky like a fox.
She dropped to all four legs, the planks bending slightly beneath her, and lumbered around the blackboard. There, another moving shadow and a mouth full of that rat-fox-creature smell.
In two bounds she was at the next stack of furniture. Her paws thunder on the floorboards, sending dust into the air. It momentarily obscured the scent she was following, but now there was a sound as well. Scraping, the same scraping as before. To her right, and close.
Corey turned her head and found herself muzzle to muzzle with something almost as large as her. She couldn’t make it out well in the darkness, but then it opened its mouth, snout pointed right at her and screeched into her face.
In the silence after, Corey flicked a fury ear. Then she took a deep breath and roared back.
The creature squeaked, jumped instinctively back. It fell against the blackboard and tried to scramble away into the deeper recesses of the attic but Corey swiped a paw at it and it went flying. Its claws skittered on the floorboards. She lumbered after it but the creature was fast. It had already pulled itself up, turned to face her and as she thundered into it shoulder-first, it closed its mouth on her.
Corey could feel its teeth, sharp and long in front and flatter towards the back. A rodent. More rat than fox, then. It bit down on her, getting little more than a face full of fur for its efforts.
She brought a paw down, felt something buckle under her. She opened her maw and closed it on the nearest part of the creature: its head.
When she returned to the three girls, she was back to her human form, folded neatly into a shape four, five times smaller than the bear, folded inwards like one of those paper planes. Shelley still stood, alert despite her wrapped up arm.
“Was it just the one?”
Corey nodded, then repeated the gesture once she was done wiping her face clean. There was plenty of dusty linen in the attic. No one would miss a few old napkins. “Just one, big, ugly rat-thing. With a little bit of fox.”
“How about that,” said Shelley. “Sounds like a rat queen.”
“Tasted alright.” Corey rubbed at her hands. She was going to need some water. “What happened to Lia?”
“She passed out,” Nanda said. She frowned at Corey. “Around the time the crunching noises started. What happened to you?”
“I killed a rat queen, apparently.” Corey grinned, and to her delight she saw that Nanda smiled back. She looked a little shocked, sure, but Corey imagined it was hard not to be on a night like this. “You never know what you find in an attic. They’re weird like that.”