Knowing she could come at any moment, I didn’t waste a second. I took the key and ran to my bathroom, closing the door tight behind me. Nobody would follow, of course, but one could never be too cautious. I remembered what I’d read in books and seen on T.V.; just press the key into a bar of soap. It was actually a little harder than I’d thought, especially with the details in it, if any weren’t preserved, I could potentially get caught. Once I was satisfied, I stowed the bar underneath my mattress, next to all the letters from Nick. Nobody ever checked there. Quiet as a mouse, I returned the key (which I’d wiped down for obvious reasons) and snuck back up to bed, falling into a deep slumber.
Once morning came, the sunlight streaming across my eyes and lighting the room in creamy warmth, I became anxious. Say the servants flipped or cleaned the mattresses? Bed bugs were always a possibility. I took the letters and soap out again. They all smelled of lavender. Looking around, I tried to find a better space. My dresser would be too obvious, and so would my nightstand. My closet was a possibility, but only if I was impossibly cautious, as there were old dresses that Momma sometimes pulled out, and spare blankets on the top shelf. Part of me considered keeping them with me at all times, but that wasn’t feasible during the summer, whereas when I could keep them at school, I was allowed a little more privacy.
I looked around the room again. The floorboards were all firm and unmoving, I didn’t have a fireplace with loose stones, nor a bookcase to stick the letters in. I nearly began to cry, I didn’t know what to do. Then something caught my eye. There was a small tea table in the corner. I never drank tea, hated the stuff, but I’d sit there and embroider if I had free time. The chair had a ripped bottom that wasn’t getting fixed or replaced any time soon. I’d asked for weeks for something to be done to no avail. Carefully, I lifted the cushion, finding the rip, about six inches long, a small hole exposing springs and padding. I slipped the papers and soap in there, deciding to sew up the gap for now. If anyone asked or checked, I could simply say I decided to fix it myself. A few dozen stitches later, and it was perfect.
A few weeks passed, just after school began. It was a warm, August night, a Saturday. Grandmother was, for one rare occasion, out of the house and visiting a relative, Momma was on her honeymoon, and, of course, Grandfather was stuck in bed. He often was these days, he didn’t even leave to use the bathroom, instead being tended to by nurses at all hours of the day and night. I was sure now that dusk was turning on his soul, I only wanted it to come quicker.
Over time, I had carefully copied the key, fashioning it from a small piece of plywood I nicked from a broken crate. We had ingredients delivered to the kitchen, and one of my tasks was to take the remnants out to the scrap pile near the woods. Often, we sold it back to the servants, or the few people that lived on the outskirts of town, or the hunters in the area to use as cheap firewood. A scrap that was three inches long and an inch wide wouldn’t be missed. The carving was the difficult part. The wood was hard and dry, and I had to be careful as not to get any splinters. If I did, they’d surely be noticed and questioned. Each tiny sliver carved away was saved in an empty carton from old perfume and nightly it was smuggled away into flower pots or out in the yard. By all the graces I mustered, I wasn’t suspected of a thing. My only fear at this point was that I’d be caught, or even worse, it wouldn’t work and my efforts would have been in vain.
At the stroke of midnight, it was Sunday the thirtieth. With sock-feet, I slid out of bed, changed back into my dress from the day, and retrieved the key I’d stowed in my school bag. By the thin sliver of moon visible, I caught my reflection in the full length mirror, and in turn, reflected on my memories of my siblings. I hadn’t seen them in nearly two years, since Christmas of 1957, they would look worlds different. Chris would be sixteen, nearly a man, Cathy well into puberty at fourteen, and the twins six. They should be in kindergarten at least, if not starting first grade. Would they even remember me? I hadn’t a clue, only hope.
I slipped the key into my pocket along with some small candies. It was a small, insignificant consolation for not being present, but it was the best I could manage while being stealthy. With a breath, I pushed my bedroom door open and stepped into the hall.
It was dead silent. One could hear a mouse padding around, I figured, if they tried. My door was pulled shut quietly, and I tiptoed down to the stairs, thanking my lucky stars that the floorboards never seemed to creak. Even so, I walked close to the walls, and once on the stairs, as far to the railing as was comfortable. One flight, two flights, and I was up to the landing.
My siblings were just a few doors away. No servants were up here, so I could be just a little louder.
A few steps away now, the door becoming visible.
Just five feet away.
I pulled the key from my pocket. It was warm and heavy in my palm. With bated breath, I pushed it into the lock and turned.
It had unlocked. I nearly squealed in joy, but held my tongue. Turning the knob, I opened the door and stepped inside.
My four siblings were fast asleep, and I nearly cried at the sight of them. Though covered in blankets, they were so skinny, and in the dim light I could see their pale, ashy skin. It was unhealthy. Sunken eyes and hollow cheeks were prominent, and I saw that Cathy’s hair had been cropped boyishly short. My heart knew it wasn’t her choice. As I closed the door, Carrie stirred. My breath hitched in my throat, though she lay back down without even looking at me.
I kneeled next to Chris’ bed and shook his arm gently. With a grumble, he slowly woke up, questioning what was going on. I took a breath.
“Chris. It’s me. Camilla. I’m here.” I whispered.
He sat up, rubbing at his eyes sleepily. “Wh… What’s going on?” He yawned.
I repeated myself, and he suddenly became more alert, looking at me as if he’d seen a ghost. Perhaps he had.
“How? You’re not supposed to be up here! What if Grandmother finds out?” He asked, worried.
I pat his shoulder to reassure him. “She’s not here, and neither is Momma. I made a copy of Grandmother’s key, though.” I showed him my handiwork.
“We should wake up the others.” He suggested, and I then noticed how much his voice had deepened. “We can go up to the attic. We have lots to show you.”
With that, I took to waking Cathy and Carrie in the same fashion as I did Chris, gesturing for them to stay silent. Once they were all awake, I was led up a narrow flight of stairs to their garden, which they soon illuminated with old candles and flashlights, of course, once they covered the tiny windows. We sat in a circle in the center of the main room.
“You have to tell us everything.” Cathy begged. “Where have you been?! What’s going on with Grandfather?!”
I shifted. “Well, Grandfather is still alive. Unfortunately, though he’s on his last leg.”
There was a collective sigh.
“He can’t even get out of bed, the doctors give him less than six months. I say even sooner.”
“Are you sure? We thought he’d kick the bucket the first six months we were here, and look at us now.” Chris pointed out. “We need to be sure.”
“I’m certain.” I replied. “When we came here, he was still coherent, still able to get around at least a little, with help. Now he can’t move and he can barely speak most of the time. Even Grandmother is starting to make funeral arrangements. I give him until Christmas, this year.”
Carrie crawled into my lap. Despite being two years older, she hadn’t grown an inch since the last time I’d seen them. It worried me.
“Cammie?” She asked. “Why haven’t you come to see us? Do you hate us?”
My heart broke in two.
“Not at all, I promise. I’ve been wanting to see you for ages, I really have… I’m not even allowed to be on this floor of the house. It took a long time, but I was able to sneak and copy the key.” I explained. She didn't look one hundred percent satisfied with the answer, but she didn’t pry.
“What about Momma? Where’s she been?” Cory looked up at me.
I bit my lip. “Well, you remember the lawyer that Grandfather has to work out his will, correct?” I asked.
They all nodded.
“Well… to put it as bluntly as possible, she married him.”
There was collective shock, and I bit my lip.
“I know. I really don’t agree with it myself. It was earlier this month, she’s on her honeymoon now.”
“Daddy’s been dead not even three years and she marries him?!” Cathy began to cry. “She told me she wouldn’t ever get married again! She said she missed him and there wouldn’t be another man on the face of the earth that would ever match up to him! I hate her!”
Chris grabbed hold of her and held her close, rocking her back and forth. There was an odd pang in my chest. They acted much less like siblings and more like lovers. I didn’t like the thought, there was something deeply wrong, but I said nothing for now.
“I’m sorry.” I murmured.
“And you!” Cathy pointed at me, a frightening look in her eyes. “We saw you at Christmas, at that ball, you didn’t even look mad or sad or anything! You said you weren’t allowed to go, and we saw you dancing with some boy like you should be!”
Cathy began to sob.
“You’re out living your life all happy and normal while we’re stuck up here rotting! Grandmother drugged me and put tar in my hair! She starved us all for two weeks because something Chris and I did! She threatens to beat us for little things that we can’t even control! Chris and I act like parents to these two, we have to teach them because they can’t go to school, and I can’t even do math past fifth grade! I should be in high school, I should be thinking about going to homecoming and schoolwork and boys! I should be watching Carrie and Cory with their friends playing in the backyard, we should be starting to look at colleges with Chris! He should be going on dates and to the movies and getting his first job! I should be at a dance studio! You’re doing everything you want to, you go to school and have a boyfriend, I know that! You’re almost eighteen! Why haven’t you stood up to Momma or Grandmother or Grandfather or just told someone?! Why haven’t you done anything?!” She was nearly yelling, only quiet due to her instincts. Her breathing was ragged, sobs choking her.
I felt a cool drop on my leg. I was crying. Carrie shied away from me.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered.
“You’re not.” Cathy rasped. “I know you’re not.”
I closed my eyes. I felt small. I tried pinching myself, just wishing it was a dream, but it wasn’t. The sharp pain in my arm said that much.
It wasn’t a dream. It was a living nightmare.