Lynn stood at the top of the stairs. Before her was the closet she and her older bother used to fight over. To her right was the door to her room; to her left was her brother's. She took some keys out of her pocket and opened the door to her brother's old room. She was sure Mom knew she had taken to locking it these days. As if anyone actually used it anymore…
The door swung open, releasing a gust of air that struck her as too cool for an upstairs room on a summer day. It was the first time she had actually entered this room in over a year, but the first thing her eyes were drawn to was still the attic. The latch was still locked, and the boxes she had stacked in front of the door last spring were still there; even so, it hardened her resolve.
She was glad they were moving.
Lynn stood there for a long moment, noticing anew how barren the room looked now, its slanted walls devoid of posters, its floor absent of any meaningful furniture. In the year-and-a-half since her brother's disappearance, his bedroom had evolved into a kind of storage room. A place to put things and forget about them.
She understood that now.
School would be starting again in a couple weeks, which meant that they would have little time to get settled into the new house. At least she was still in the same school district. Having to say goodbye to all of her friends and start the seventh grade all alone would have been too much on top of this.
Lynn summoned up her will and walked toward the door, fighting with each step the urge to turn around and leave. After all, she had almost convinced herself that what had happened that day really hadn't, that her brother really had just gone out to play and gotten lost in the big, bad world… but with each step she took that day became more real and immediate in her mind.
At last she stood before the door. The nightmares. The latch. The boxes. The locked doors. And now she was unbarring these things one by one, telling herself that Dad was right. She had just made it all up, all the things she never told him, never told Mom. She wanted all the lies to be true so she could stop blaming herself and be rid of this fear so she could do what she needed to do.
To get on with her life.
Hesitantly at first, but with increasing resolve, she removed the boxes. At last she stood before the door…
…Lynn and Patrick stood face to face, locked in a battle of wills.
Pat had dared her to go out and shut herself in the outhouse behind the yard. Even though it hadn't been used since the Eisenhower administration, it still reeked in there, and she had seen mold-covered shapes that she was certain used to be turds, with bugs and centipedes crawling around in it. Though it was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen, she had done it, so now it was Pat's turn to take a dare.
And she had proposed a doozy.
It was an unseasonably warm February day, the third in a row, and most of the snow had melted off. Yesterday, on his way to the bus after school, he had taken a "shortcut" past the steps going down to the bus stop, instead slipping on some mud, and getting to the bottom a little faster than he had intended. Naturally, Lynn had been there to see the whole thing, and she still hadn't stopped laughing about it.
This morning, he had awakened to the jolt of her jumping up and down on his bed, gleefully shouting, "Earthquake! Earthquake!" Pat, his back still sore and stiff from his little shortcut, wasn't having any of it. He simply scissored his legs, sending her sprawling across the bed next to him.
"Shut up!" he moaned, yawning and rolling over.
"Muddy-butt! Muddy-butt!" she chanted in that sing-song voice which she had clearly outgrown only when her friends were watching.
"I'm tryin' to sleep…" he muttered. "So I got a little mud on my ass… what's the big deal?"
"Hey! You said a bad word!" Lynn told him. "Do you want me to tell Mom?"
"Do you want me to tell her you were jumping on me?"
He had her there.
And so she had had to wait another boring hour for him to get up, and now it was payback time.
Now they stood before the door in Pat's room. Both of them knew the door led to a kind of attic that had never been made into a real room. Dad had said it was full of old junk left in there by previous owners. The house had been built before the turn of the century, and had been added on to several times in its history.
"But wouldn't you rather see me go in the outhouse?" Pat asked. "I'll even use it, if that's what you want."
The door to the attic had an ingenious latch that locked every time the door was shut all the way. Taped to the door was a poster of Yoda, and she had heard Pat tell one of his friends that it made the door look more "friendly" or something.
"No. I dare you to go in and grab something from the other side." She would later recall seeing how strangely unnerved her big brother had seemed then, but she pressed him anyway.
"But it's all dirty in there," he protested.
"I'll tell all your friends you're chicken."
Perhaps if he had told her about the latch rattling at night, about the dreams of the disheveled old man who goes in there and never comes back out… But now he had no choice but to go in, and he didn't want to psych himself out. Instead, he undid the latch.
In the gloom beyond lay a long, low room, boxes and trunks and other junk stacked against the walls. He had to duck under the ceiling beams, and he was dismayed to see there was no light bulb in here—
Then Lynn shut the door, the latch locking with a mocking click.
"Hey!" she heard his muffled cry. "Let me out!"
"Ha!" she laughed. "How do you like it!"
"I'm serious, sis!" Pat's voice told her. "You gotta let me out! This isn't funny!"
He started pounding on the door.
Then she heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor in there.
"There's something in here!" Pat's voice screamed. "Help! Help!"
Still she held the latch for good measure, telling herself that if she let him out now, he would just laugh at her and tell her it was all a prank. And, as usual, you fell for it.
Pat screamed and started pounding even more frantically. A moment later, she heard what sounded like even more things being dragged across the floor in there. By now she could hear him screeching incoherently, and she was now afraid to open the latch because she was sure that whatever was in there was real.
At last she could stand no more, and she bolted from the room, slamming the bedroom door behind her and retreating to the familiar comfort of downstairs, leaving the unreal nightmare behind, Pat's screams becoming less and less audible…
…Lynn had sat downstairs watching cartoons for the rest of the afternoon, constantly keeping an eye on the door next to the stairs. When Mom got home later that evening, she told her that Pat had gone outside to play. That was her story, and she was sticking to it.
Naturally, the police were never able to find him.
Now that she was opening the door once again, she wondered why no one had thought to search in here. One glimpse inside, though, told her all she needed to know about why grownups ignored this door. She marveled at how all of this could be on the second floor of her house.
Slowly, cautiously, she advanced, leaving the door hanging wide open so she could run. Some nights, she was sure she had heard her brother whispering from the closet door to let him out, promising he wouldn't tell Mom and Dad. But she had been too afraid and confused and ashamed to go in. And too certain that if Pat was still alive, he would have raised his voice a long time ago.
Compelled by an overwhelming curiosity, she stepped around the corner. There she saw an old trunk. On an unknown compulsion, she opened it.
Before she could see through the thin veil of dust she'd raised, she heard an ominous click from around the corner.
"No…" she breathed, trying to figure out what had possessed her to come in here in the first place.
But before she could turn to run, the dust began to clear, and what she saw in the trunk froze her in her tracks. Curled up in the box was a skeleton. And she recognized the shirt hanging from those bones all too well.
Struck dumb with terror, she fell backwards, stumbling as the strength ran out of her legs. Stumbled right into the open wardrobe behind her. As the coats closed in around her, muffling her breathless screams, the heavy wooden door swung shut…
"…Lynn… Supper time!" called Lynn's mom from the bottom of the stairs.
Still no answer.
"Honey! I made your favorite! Pizza!" She always thought it was funny that she could summon both her daughter and her husband with those same exact words. But right now she was worried. Now that she thought about it, she couldn't hear Lynn's radio playing, and she had been listening to it constantly during this last week or so of packing.
At the top of the stairs she noticed that the door to Patrick's room was still open. She had been out to buy groceries earlier, but before she left, she had come up and shut the door to the attic, figuring that her daughter had forgotten to. Now she wondered.
"Did I shut you in there?" she asked, walking up to the door. "If I did, I'm sorry."
She opened the door and stepped inside, having no idea how sorry she would be…
Don walked into his house, and immediately sensed something was wrong.
He had just returned from a cross-country long-haul job, and he had figured no one had answered him the last couple days because they were all busy packing.
"Bev! Lynn! Anybody home!" he called.
But he could see that very little packing had been done in his absence. The house only answered him with waves of stuffiness, and an underlying smell he couldn't quite determine.
At least until he came into the dining room and found the furry pizza, which smelled positively rank. The whole place looked and felt like it had been unoccupied for days.
After exploring downstairs, he went up.
Much to his dismay, he found the door to his son's room hanging wide open, though he couldn't quite put his finger on why this worried him. The room itself was strangely chilly for late August, so he opened a window. When he turned around, he saw the boxes stacked next to the attic door.
"So she did it…" he muttered. When he suggested that Lynn go retrieve any items of interest from the attic as a way of getting over her mysterious fear of Pat's room, he hadn't actually expected her to go through with it.
He opened the door and stepped inside, only now he wasn't quite sure where he was. The dingy room in which he now stood looked nothing like the half-room he remembered from when they first moved here three summers ago. For one thing, he barely had to duck to avoid the ceiling, and now the room branched around corners in two directions.
"There's no way all this could fit in our house…" he muttered.
Right about then, a puff of breeze blew the door shut.
While their parents and the realtor discussed disappearing persons, outstanding debts, and rational explanations, Ben and Zach scrambled up the rickety staircase to look around.
As the grownups' voices droned on below, the two boys found a small door in one of the bedrooms. Ben undid the latch, and both of their jaws dropped at what they beheld.
"Whoa!" Ben breathed. "I got dibs on this room!"
"No way!" Zach protested.
Ben then scrambled into the attic, his little brother tagging along behind him.