First came the murmurs. Then footsteps above our bedroom, where no feet should have been.
Josh guessed we had squirrels in the attic.
“I hope not,” I said, lying next to him the first night in our new rental. “Seeing as how we don’t have a key to the top floor. Anyway, it’s just the creaks of an old house, right?”
“It’s the Ghost of Renters Past, come to warn us why this place was so cheap,” Josh said, brushing fingers across my face. “Relax. We’ve never lived in an old house before. We’ll get used to it.”
I closed my eyes and willed myself to get used to the sounds. Josh began to snore beside me. We had driven from Pittsburgh before dawn, and unloaded the whole rental van ourselves since we didn’t know anyone in Baltimore. We deserved sleep.
I rolled over and nudged Josh. “Can you still hear them?”
He muttered something subvocal. Agreement, probably. I tried not to resent how easily he drifted off.
He was right. We had squirrels in the attic. Not voices. Not footsteps. I wrapped myself around Josh’s reassuring bulk and pulled the blanket over my head to block out the noise.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, Josh was already out of bed. I heard him whistling some jaunty morning–person tune.
I gazed up at the ceiling, noticing the crown molding for the first time. How had we managed to rent something this nice? It still seemed impossible. So different from anyplace else we had lived. A whole house to ourselves: no roommates, no neighbors to disturb us through thin apartment walls. The neighborhood wasn’t great, but it was near my school, and Josh got a distraction–free study of his own, and we could afford the whole house for less than a one bedroom apartment in the gentrified areas.
The only catch to this dream home was the locked attic, which hadn’t felt like much of a catch when I’d toured the house. “The owner is abroad,” the rental agency lady had explained. “He didn’t want renters wrecking his furniture—no offense—so he locked it upstairs.” We’d spent our first three years of marriage in a two–bedroom apartment with roommates. A three bedroom Victorian gave us more than enough space, even without access to the attic.
When I finally dragged myself out of bed, I found Josh on the top landing, looking like a child who had been told not to touch the cookies on the cooling rack.
“I’m on a squirrel hunt.” He tried the doorknob. “Why do you think he locked it?”
I shrugged. “To keep renters out of his stuff. Pretend it isn’t there.”
“It seems so unsafe that they didn’t give us a key. What if it’s full of bodies? Or a meth lab? Or explosives? Or an exploding meth lab?”
I pretended to consider his jokes seriously. “If it was full of bodies, we’d smell them. If it’s an exploding meth lab, I guess we’ll find out one way or another. Come on down and forget about it.”
Josh took two steps down then sat on the stair and turned around. He put his face up against the crack under the door.
“Can you see anything?” I asked.
“Nah. Not in this light anyway. The house has a west–facing window, so I should be able to see something in the evening.”
“If you care enough to try?”
“Right.” He turned around on the step. “But aren’t you curious? Maybe there’s something worth selling. The Crown Jewels or Confederate gold or a first edition Shakespeare or something. You’ll be the one wanting to break in if we fall behind paying back your student loans.”
I stuck out my tongue. “Very funny. No stealing.”
“Just a thought. We can sell the usual stuff first before we resort to B & E—blood, sperm, term papers, sex, souls.”
“In that order?”
“I suppose.” He stood and took the last few stairs, then pulled me into his arms. “You want a freebie before I start charging? For sex, I mean. I wouldn’t think you’d be in the market for blood or term papers.”
“That’s what you think,” I said, baring my very unvampire–like teeth. “You married a vampire. An undergrad vampire.”
“Noooooooo. How am I going to tell my parents? They’re expecting grandbabies. They’ll want to play with them in the daytime.”
I pushed him away. “I wish you’d stop bringing that up. I’ll tell you when and if I’m ready to think about kids, I promise. You know that.”
“I was joking. We were joking around.”
“Until you weren’t.” I softened. “Anyway, we should unpack some more before you hit the street.”
He mustered a hurt smile and followed me down the stairs.
We spent that day and the next one unpacking, exploring the neighborhood, and running errands to various stores. On our third day, I headed to my new school for a professional development day. I hoped Josh might have finished unpacking the boxes by the time I got back from work.
“Honey, I’m home!” I called from inside the front door, doing my best 60s TV dad imitation. “What’s for supper? Where’s my martini?”
No answer. I’d have to save my Mad Men jokes for another day.
I peeked into his office, already strewn with papers and books. His laptop screen cycled through photos from our wedding. He wasn’t in the bedroom or the bathroom either.
“Top of the stairs. I’m almost in!”
I peered up toward the attic. Josh knelt on the landing, tools arrayed beside him. He was working on the deadbolt with one of my bobby pins.
I climbed up to sit on the stair below him. The lower floors were a pleasant enough temperature for August, but all the heat had collected at the attic door. I wiped sweat off my forehead. “I take it you got a lot of writing done today?”
“A little. Then I thought I heard a noise above me. Definitely a squirrel or something. And I started thinking we should really get in there. You know, for safety’s sake.”
“For safety’s sake,” I echoed. “Why don’t I just call the realtor and tell her there’s something trapped? She probably has a key. Or a locksmith?”
“I’ll have it in a second. I minored in lock picking in college, you know.”
“If you did, I don’t want to know about it. You minored in procrastination. What was your goal for today? Six hours’ work on Clarisse?” Clarisse was the name we had given his dissertation, the third party in our marriage. I figured if I had to lose his attention, it should only be to a Clarisse, expert on merchant class home life in the colonial mid–Atlantic.
He flashed me a guilty smile. “Ah, yeah. I got in two hours before I decided to look for the squirrel.”
I listened for a moment. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Yeah, it’s been quiet all day. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”
“A nocturnal squirrel?”
“Or a raccoon? Are there raccoons in Baltimore? Anyway, squirrels are better.” He put down the bobby pin and picked up a screwdriver.
“If I can catch him, we know what’s for dinner.”
I groaned and stood up. “Macaroni and cheese it is. If you want to add squirrelburger helper to yours, be my guest.”
I added chicken. Josh still hadn’t appeared, so I balanced two bowls and two beers against my chest and headed up again. We ate on the stairs while I described my new classroom.
“I did it!” Josh’s triumph came through loud enough that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. It echoed through the empty classroom, where my new co–teacher and I were doing our best to decorate the cinder–block walls with construction paper scraps we’d found in the closet. I gave her an apologetic shrug and put down my scissors.
“I opened the secret room!”
“You broke in. We don’t have a secret room. We have a locked room,” I pointed out.
“Same thing. Except your phrasing makes it sound illegal. We did rent the whole house. Anyway, I thought you might want to know.”
“Well, um, good job, I guess. Way to go. Did you find the squirrel?”
“I just got the door open. Haven’t gone inside yet.”
“Got it,” I said. “And how’s Clarisse?”
“She’ll still be waiting downstairs when I’m done exploring. I’m going to go see what’s inside. I thought you’d be excited.”
“Have fun exploring, then.” I went back to cutting out borders for my bulletin boards. I knew I shouldn’t push him on the thesis work. He would motivate himself eventually. If anything, I was more concerned about how he didn’t seem to have any qualms about breaking into the locked room at all. Funny how you could think you knew somebody and then they’d do something to change that perception entirely.
I didn’t bother shouting when I came in the door. I knew where I would find him.
“Helloooo?” I called at the top landing. “Have you been eaten by squirrels?”
“In here, Court. You’re never going to believe this place!”
I stepped inside and immediately tripped over the runner of a rocking chair situated to the right of the door. I looked up at a tower of boxes. No, several towers. A narrow lane led between them, with paths diverging in all directions. I got to my feet carefully, afraid I’d pull something down on my head. Four steps in, I no longer saw the doorway behind me.
“Where are you?” I asked. “Marco?”
“Polo! Walk toward the light.”
I followed his voice, stifling the claustrophobia creeping up on me. Crates, trunks, suitcases, plastic tubs, metal tins. Stacks of old playbills. A guitar, a banjo, an entire barrel full of doorknobs and hinges and locks. Most towers were too high to see over. I peeked in and around things as I edged closer to where I hoped I would find Josh.
He sat cross–legged on the floor by the west–facing window, his face and clothes streaked with grime. I bent to kiss his least dusty part, a small patch on his forehead.
“You can have the chair.” He pointed. A small mahogany writing desk occupied the space under the window, with a matching chair nestled beneath it. The dry leather seat cracked as I sank into it.
“Do you think this guy was ever on Hoarders?” I asked. “This is some seriously sick collecting.”
“Are you kidding? It’s awesome!”
I recognized the excitement in his face. I knew better than to condone it. “What’s so awesome, babe?”
“Everything! Some of this stuff has got to be as old as the house. Look here!” He pushed an open box toward me. “Antique toy soldiers. Solid metal ones. And here—a mechanical bank.” He held up a colored metal box embossed with “Punch and Judy Bank.” Two painted figures were silhouetted inside a curtained stage. He flipped a lever and one of the two figures hit the other with a stick. “It says 1884 on the bottom.”
“So are all the boxes full of antique toys?”
“Nope. So far I’ve found quilts, dresses, Army uniforms, a medal from the Spanish American War. Court, I found a sword. In a scabbard. Or a sheath. I forget the difference. I should go look it up.”
“So he’s like those famous hoarders from New York? Is there a car in here somewhere?” I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“No, but there’s a toboggan. And a tandem bike. And a cavalry saddle. And a sad clown painted on velvet. And a taxidermied lynx.”
“That’s the cat with the pointy ears, right?”
“It’s a lynx, then. And there’s newer stuff, too. Stuffed animals—not the taxidermy kind—and GI Joes and Transformers. Harry Potter Legos.
I wanted to see the Harry Potter stuff, but I resisted looking where he pointed. “What do you plan on doing, Josh? Opening a toy museum? Selling a few things to pay bills? None of this is ours.”
He shook his head. “I know it’s not ours. Anyway, the good stuff is too cool to sell, and the other stuff is cool but isn’t worth anything. I just want to look through it all.”
“Yeah. Not all at once, I promise. I’ll come down with you now. I’ll use it as a reward system when I’ve gotten in some good hours with Clarisse. I’ve been neglecting her.”
I kissed him, my own reward system. “She’ll appreciate that. Did you find the squirrel?”
“Nah. But there are a million places it could hide.” He didn’t look like he was going to mind the search.
That night, I had trouble sleeping again.
“Josh,” I whispered.
“Mm?” he replied, clearly already half asleep.
“You really never saw any sign of the squirrel?”
“And no Ghost of Renters Past?”
He groaned something I assumed was a no.
I must have been imagining the sounds from above. Josh hadn’t found squirrels. The ceiling wasn’t caving under the weight of everything in the attic. There’d be cracks; I hadn’t noticed any. Houses settle. An old house creaking, nothing more.
I would have thought Josh would be the first to bring something downstairs. Some clockwork toy he needed for a desk mascot, perhaps. A guitar or sword to hang on the wall. Instead, I was the one who caved.
I hadn’t realized the dire situation my new school was in. I had asked about books for my classroom and been met with sympathetic chuckles. My question about toys caused outright laughter. “Hon, you’re in southwest Baltimore,” one old timer said to me after the meeting. “You’d better start gathering up all the pencils in your house now, because you’re buying everything those kids need. Paper, tissues, crayons. We’re lucky the city doesn’t charge us rent for use of the classrooms.”
I drove home with tears blurring my eyes, thinking about my monthly budget, about everything I would need to buy for my classroom. Books, toys, paper, pencils. I’d have to buy the latter, but at least I had an idea how to stock my classroom with the other stuff.
Josh eyed me with suspicion as I filled one of our moving boxes with unpainted wooden blocks and tools. Anything that looked like it wouldn’t be likely to be coated in lead paint or small enough for the kids to choke on. Dust from the piles I had stirred up floated in the sunbeams between us. “I thought you said we weren’t allowed to take anything downstairs.”
“I’m not keeping any of it. I’m only borrowing these for a little while,” I said, moving on to the bookshelf. “My first–graders need this stuff more than some guy who didn’t even bother to take it with him when he moved out. Nobody needs this many toys.”
“What if they belonged to his dead kid or something?”
Good point. “I’ll bring them back. And I still say if it mattered that much to him he would have moved it.” I was aware we had switched sides in this argument, and hoped he didn’t hone in on the irony.
“It’s not like he abandoned it,” Josh said. “He still owns the house, remember? This is his storage unit. He locked the door.”
I batted my eyes at him. “He should have known a locked door would just be an invitation.”
He aimed a stuffed monkey at my head, and I threw it back at him. He tossed it into my box, then picked the whole thing up.
“I’ll take this out to the car if you’ll make me dinner.”
“That seems horribly unfair. You carry a little box for two minutes and I have to spend half an hour cooking?”
“I’ll do the dishes?”
I sighed. “Deal.”
The sun had just risen the next morning when I headed out to the car. Two minutes later I was back again, sticking my head into the bathroom, where I had left Josh shaving.
“Back already?” he asked, looking at me in the mirror. “What did you do with those toys?”
“In the car.” He picked up the razor again.
“Did you lock it?”
He turned to look at me without the mirror as intermediary. “Is the car okay?”
“Yeah. Not even a broken window. They must have popped the lock somehow.”
“But the box isn’t in the back seat?”
“The box is there, but the toys aren’t,” I answered.
He sighed. “I guess somebody needed them more than you did. Early Christmas for some neighborhood kid?”
“Yeah. Maybe even for one of my students.” That made me feel a little better.
“We should probably learn not to leave anything in the car overnight. Do you want to get some more toys from upstairs?”
“Maybe later. I don’t want to be late for work.”
I kissed him again and headed to school. Who would steal toys from a car and leave everything else? My quarters were still in the cupholder. The EZPass was still in the windshield; I peeled it off and stowed it in the glove compartment. Whoever had broken in had only wanted toys. Nobody would take toys without a good reason. I sighed and let it go.
After two blocks, a red light caught me. I looked over at the playground on my right. The ground glittered with broken glass. One swing was missing, and the other was wrapped around the top bar. I tried to picture raising a child here, but as usual, I got stuck before “here” at the “raising a child” part. I loved teaching. I loved working with kids. I loved giving them back at day’s end. People kept saying I would feel differently once I had my own, but I didn’t think so, and it didn’t seem fair to put it to the test.
Somebody honked behind me, and I realized the light had changed.
A message from Josh halfway through my day sent me up to the attic as soon as I got home. “TOYS ARE BACK,” the text had read.
I found him upstairs again. He raised his eyes to greet me, and then gestured with his head.
I looked where he indicated.
“Toys are back,” he said, echoing his text.
He was right. All the toys I had taken were back in their original places.
“Where did you find them?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Right there. They were all there when I came up here today.”
“How is that possible? You’re messing with me, right?”
“Why would I do that? I’m not, I swear. I thought maybe you were playing a joke on me.”
“If you didn’t want me to take the toys, you should have said so.” He looked sincere, but I knew I hadn’t done it, so it had to be him.
We both went to bed irritated with each other.
Josh started spending all his days in the attic. I knew to look there when I woke up and when I got back from school. Clarisse languished on his desk, a spurned woman.
“What happened to your deadline?” I asked after three weeks had gone by. “We can’t live on my salary and your stipend forever. The sooner you finish—”
“—the sooner we can talk about babies again?”
“That too,” I said. “But you have to prove you can concentrate on something even when it’s not exciting to you.”
It wasn’t fair to hold kids out like a prize, or to imply he’d be the weak link in a parenting scenario. We both knew it.
“I’m not a kid, Court.”
“Then stop acting like one. Get your work done during the day, so we can spend time together when I get home. Consider making dinner or vaccuuming if you’re not actually doing the work you’re supposed to be doing. This isn’t cool. No more jokes.”
“I told you, I didn’t pull a prank on you.”
“You also told me you were going to be able to work from home if we moved here.” I didn’t like pushing him or setting rules, but his bullshit excuses were getting old. When I went to bed, he was still upstairs.
Waking in the dark the next morning, I realized I had no clue if he’d ever come to bed. I dragged myself upstairs to find Josh at the front of the attic, curled in the rocking chair, a musty afghan pulled up to his ears.
“You came,” he said. “I didn’t think you would.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Cataloguing.” He pulled the blanket up higher.
“Well, if you don’t start paying attention to me and Clarisse again, you’re fired. This is ridiculous. You have work you’re supposed to be doing, and this stuff isn’t even ours. What difference does it make if you know everything that’s up here?”
“It’s abandoned. It’s the most amazing stuff, and nobody even knows about it. And some of these papers may actually be useful primary documents for Clarisse. Old bills of sale, old newspapers.”
“I dare you to get three pages done on Clarisse today. Spend the rest of the day up here if you want, but I’d love to see some proof you haven’t gone completely off the rails.”
He crossed his arms and threw a look like a petulant first grader. “What do I get if I do it?”
“You get three pages further than you were yesterday. It’s a dare, not a bet.” I stepped on the chair runner to jolt him.
“Fine.” He stood up, the afghan still around his shoulders. “And I dare you to stay up here tomorrow night with me.”
“Do the toys come alive?” I asked, my voice tinged with sarcasm. “Do they have tea parties with the imaginary squirrels?”
“Very funny. Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
I looked at my watch and realized he was right. I gave him a peck on his cold cheek and dashed down the stairs. Luckily, I always set out clothes for work the night before; no time now for a shower or makeup.
At the front door I realized I hadn’t grabbed my lunch, and ducked into the kitchen. To my surprise, Josh stood at the stove, flipping an omelet. “I thought you might want hot breakfast this morning. I’ve got a to–go box ready for you,” he said, indicating a Pyrex container on the counter.
“And here’s your coffee,” he continued, handing me a travel mug. “Sugared and creamed.”
I wrapped my arms around him. “Thank you! I’m sorry I gave you a hard time.”
“Never mind,” I said. If it hadn’t bothered him, why remind him? I reached for the coffee and took a sip. Just the way I liked it; he must have really been trying to make amends. I had no idea how he had brewed it so quickly, but I wasn’t going to complain.
He flipped the omelet into the bowl and sealed the top, then handed it to me with a flourish. “Don’t forget a fork.” I grabbed the container and headed for the door. “Or your lunch!” he shouted. I came back.
“You’re the best. I love you.” I kissed him goodbye. “Have a good day with Clarisse. Three pages, right?”
“If you say so,” he said, looking confused.
When I arrived home, he was in his office. I heard clattering computer keys and the syncopation of his right foot, which always tapped against the desk leg as he typed. I peeked in, not wanting to interrupt if he was on a roll. He looked up and smiled.
“Three pages?” I asked. “Did the dare work?”
“Dare?” He leaned back in his chair. “I’ve done two full pages and two pages of footnotes, if that counts, but I don’t know what dare you’re talking about.”
I shrugged. “I think you were half asleep when I said it this morning.”
“How would that work? I was awake an hour before you. I made you breakfast, remember?”
I stared at him. “After I woke you. In the attic. I dared you to write three pages before I got home from school.”
“Are you sure you didn’t dream it? I don’t know how you could have woken me in the attic when I didn’t sleep in the attic. I slept right next to you. I just got up early.”
“Stop fucking with me,” I said, glaring. I didn’t like this game any more than the last one.
He held up his hands in supplication. “I swear. Not messing. Why would I fuck with you?”
I shook my head.
The murmurs woke me again that night. I curled into the small of Josh’s back.
“Can you hear them?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“It’s not squirrels, is it?”
“No. Well, talking squirrels, maybe. I did find aviator goggles.”
The ceiling creaked.
“And I suppose that’s Bullwinkle hanging out with Rocky,” I said. More footsteps.
“The whole gang, I think,” said Josh. “Boris, Natasha, the dog with the glasses.”
I rolled away from him and extricated myself from the covers.
“Where are you going?” he asked, turning on the bedside lamp.
“Upstairs. You coming?”
He groaned and staggered from the bed. “I suppose they’d take away my man card if I let my bride go up there to face the killer squirrels alone.”
We slowed as we got to the attic door. The voices were no louder or more distinct, but they were still audible.
“Does that man card also say you have to go first?” I asked, gesturing ahead.
He shook his head. “Your idea, you go first.”
I pushed the door open and flipped the light switch.
“What are you doing?” I had asked when I woke Josh in the attic that morning.
“Cataloguing,” he had said.
He was cataloguing now. The Josh in front of me was combing through a box, a notebook in his left hand and a pen behind his ear.
He smiled at me. “You came. I wasn’t sure you would.”
The Josh behind me made a strange noise. I turned to verify he was still there. He was. One Josh in front, one behind.
There were others in the room as well. A girl in a high–collared nightgown galloped a model horse across the box tops. A little boy in a sailor outfit had strewn toy soldiers across a throw rug, clearly in the midst of some important battle. A black woman in a 1950s–style flowered housedress sat in the rocking chair crocheting. I counted eight, nine, ten of them, all in archaic clothing, all ignoring us. And an extra Josh.
“What are you?” The Josh behind me asked the Josh in front of me.
The attic Josh looked up. “What do you mean?”
“You can’t be me. You look like me, but you can’t be.”
“I’m the you that stayed.” I saw now that the cataloguing–Josh was wrong. Something different about his eyes. Washed out.
I turned to the little girl with the horse. “Who are you?”
“Maureen, what are you doing here?”
“Playing.” She ran her hands over the sleek plastic model.
“Are you real?”
“Are you real?” the girl echoed.
“Yes, but I’m not so sure about you. Are you a ghost?” I turned to Josh. “Oh, God—what if they’re all murder victims? They’re all plastered into the walls or something?”
“That wouldn’t explain him.” He was still eyeing his double. “I’m no murder victim.”
I looked around the attic. My eyes settled on the toys I had tried to remove. I made my way around the piles, trying to keep a distance from the creepy attic people. I grabbed the stuffed monkey I had thrown at Josh a couple of days before. It felt soft and pliable and real. I’d kissed Josh in the chair this morning. He’d felt real too.
“What are you doing, babe?” With my back to them, I couldn’t tell which Josh had asked.
“An experiment,” I said.
The lock on the window took some work, but it eventually groaned and gave way. Some paint flaked off the sill. Lead paint, guessed the public school teacher in me. I tossed the monkey from the window. I watched it arc through the darkness and land in the dirt a few feet from the house. I stared at it, willing something to happen. It stared up at me with button eyes. J’accuse, I imagined it saying. And perhaps “Lady, are you nuts?”
“Court?” Josh asked in a voice that indicated he was worried for both of our sanity. I didn’t blame him. I turned from the window, disappointed.
“It didn’t wo—” I began to say, then caught myself. The stuffed monkey was back on the toy pile. I stuck my head out the window. The toy I had thrown was gone.
I started to understand, if understand was the word to use when you acknowledged something impossible. I knew the next thing I would try, though I hated myself for even thinking it.
The person nearest to me was the boy with the toy soldiers. He looked my first graders’ age, which made this idea even worse. I lifted him without much trouble. He weighed less than I would have guessed for his size, which fit with my crazy theory. I pinned his arms and pulled him to his feet. He struggled and fought my grasp, but I held tight. My heart pounded a wild beat, and I could swear I felt his pulse racing as well, though I had to be imagining it. He wore a sailor outfit like I’d seen in old photos. Nobody dressed their kid like that anymore. He wasn’t real. He couldn’t be.
“Court, what the hell are you doing?”
Josh crashed through the towers, moving in my direction. Before he could reach me, before he could stop me, I did what I needed to do. I threw the little boy out the window.
The boy screamed. His body made a sick thump as it hit the ground three flights below. I steeled myself to look, hoping against hope that I was right. I was right. I had to be right.
“What the hell, Court?” The real Josh shouted, reaching me at last. He pushed past me to the window, looking at what I couldn’t bear to look at. Then, softer. “Where did he go?”
We both turned from the window. I had no words for my relief, though my mind still pictured the body that went with the sound.
The boy on the rug set to re–staging the soldiers I had knocked over.
“I knew before I did it,” I said. “I swear.”
Neither Josh would look at me.
The best we figured it—the thing my awful experiment proved—was that nothing in the attic was actually in the attic. They were echoes of everything that had ever spent significant time in there. We could carry (or throw) them from the house, but they reappeared the second we let our attention shift. The people–echoes only showed up at night.
It took a while to figure out how long something needed to stay in the attic to pick up an echo, but Josh’s further tests involving his Pez dispenser collection—never another person, never me—showed that about six successive hours did it. Seventeen Pez dispensers took up residence in a corner, between the lynx and the saddle.
I only went upstairs one more time, slipping into the attic after Josh was asleep.
His echo looked up and smiled when I walked in. “You came. I wasn’t sure you would.”
“How much like him are you?”
He put his pencil behind his ear. “I’m him. Or he’s me. I’m not sure which. I’m him on the day he caught an echo.”
The day he caught an echo. Not creepy at all. “So you’re him, but caught in time?”
“Was I mad at you—him—you—that day?”
He nodded. “Can you tell? You wanted me to come downstairs. I was pissed off, even though I knew you were right.”
“Does that mean you’re always going to be pissed off at me? You, I mean, not him?”
“No. I’m always going to be hoping you would come back so I could apologize. I’d go downstairs and do it if I could. Then maybe you’d come back up and help me catalogue. You could have an echo of your own if you wanted, to keep me company.”
I stared at him, the perfect replica of my husband, aching for forgiveness but uninterested in dealing with his side of the issue. A Josh who wouldn’t age, wouldn’t change, would always be in a state of joy and frustration and apology. An appealing nightmare. A terrifying reassurance. I think he wanted me to kiss him, but I fled back down the stairs.
I wanted to lock the door again, but Josh refused. “There’s stuff up there I can use for Clarisse,” he said. “I really do want to explore everything, and interview the people. And besides, I can’t do any more harm. The other me is already up there.”
I won’t go in the attic anymore. I never spent enough time to develop an echo and I’m pretty sure I don’t want one, not even to keep echo–Josh company. The little boy doesn’t seem to remember what I did, but I still can’t bear to look at him. I don’t like spending time with that Josh, either. So solicitous. My poor echo would be stuck with them both forever.
My Josh has been a little careful around me since that night, as if I revealed some hideous side of my personality he hadn’t previously known. Like I was the one who started any of this. I swear to him I was already certain when I threw the boy from the window. He’s stopped bringing up the idea of getting pregnant.
At night we lie awake and listen to Josh’s double as he goes about his cataloguing of what is, and was, and always will be.
(Editors’ Note: Sarah Pinsker is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in Issue 12.)
© 2016 by Sarah Pinsker