Alex carefully pried the refrigerator door open, releasing his breath when it popped with only a slight release of air. The fridge was dangerous. It could make too much noise if he wasn't careful. He seized the orange juice from the top shelf and took a few mouthfuls straight from the carton. Checking the door he found fifteen slices of cheese. Enough to be safe. He took two, tossing them in his backpack with the rest of his haul, eight crackers, a can of mixed vegetables and three newly refilled water bottles. He had wanted to take at least one slice of bread, but there were only two left. It would have been too risky. From the shelves, he found a covered pan full of sliced roast beef and a large bag of grapes. He took three slices of the roast and a handful of grapes, which he tossed straight in to his mouth. He closed the door just as carefully as he opened it. After pausing for a minute to listen, he moved to the kitchen entryway and took as big a step as he could in to the next room. The floor here was dangerous too. The old boards creaked, and the echo could be heard through most of the house, but Alex knew this house well enough now to avoid any such hazards. He had to. He couldn't let Mrs. Morrison know that someone else was living in her house with her.
Alex's goal was in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway, in front of the linen closet and directly down the hall from Mrs. Morrison's bedroom door, which she always kept closed. Alex kept his distance from the stair railing. Its mountings were loose and rattled with the slightest touch. He opened the door to the linen closet and stepped up onto the first shelf, gripping the doorframe to pull himself up. He reached out to the ceiling and pushed the attic hatch up and to the side. Taking hold of the edge of the hatch, he stepped up the shelves of the linen closet to help push himself up. Once he pulled himself through, he reached down and gently closed the linen closet door. Replacing the hatch, he was safe. Invisible for another night.
The attic was a narrow space that ran almost the entire length of the house. There were only a couple dozen boxes and two trunks in the attic, leaving plenty of space to move. Alex had moved all of the boxes to one side, except for two, which were stacked against the opposite wall. There was a vent behind those boxes that looked down into the living room. It made Alex nervous. There was a folding chair for sitting, and several boxes of old men's and women's clothes that Alex wore and used for bedding. For entertainment there was a box of old mystery novels and a painting set with a canvas. The canvas was blank when Alex found it, but had since been painted over several times. Its current form was two blocky people sitting in a restaurant booth, with bits of a green park showing through where the restaurant had yet to spread. There was a large mirror, but Alex had turned it around to face the wall. He didn't want to be reminded of how wild his hair had gotten or how filthy his clothes were. At one end of the attic was a circular vent through which the morning sun entered the attic. It was just starting to shine through, which meant that Mrs. Morrison would be coming downstairs soon.
It was the same pattern every day. Shortly after sunrise, Alex heard Mrs. Morrison close her bedroom door and shuffle down the hall to the stairs. Her steps were heavy and uneven despite her small frame, as if she were falling onto her legs with every step. They echoed throughout the house. She had to descend the stairs slowly, clutching the constantly rattling railing. Alex could tell just by listening that she had a lot of trouble using the stairs. It took her a couple minutes just to go down the twelve steps and much longer to go up them. It would not be long before she became unable to manage them at all.
When she finally reached the landing, she headed straight through the living room toward the kitchen. Her steps thundered through the house when she passed through the kitchen entryway. Alex sat under the vent, half-reading a moldy mystery novel, half-listening for the familiar patterns of Mrs. Morrison. He knew that within a couple minutes he would smell her morning coffee, which she would enjoy with a simple breakfast, either cereal or toast, after which she would turn on the television for about an hour. Two, if she found something that she liked. When that was over, she went back upstairs, cleaned up and got dressed for the day. She'd go back downstairs and read by the window while the television kept her company. Occasionally she received phone calls, but never more than two in a single day. She didn't eat lunch, but had several smaller treats throughout the day. Some candy, potato chips, which she kept by the television, or a bowl of ice cream. Alex made sure to leave these items untouched. She cooked dinner early, and always cooked enough for two people. The leftovers always going to the fridge, and ultimately, in part, to Alex. After dinner she usually chose to either watch a bit more television, read a bit more, or work on a puzzle book. When the sunlight dwindled too far for her ailing eyes, she struggled up the stairs to go to bed for the next day, and Alex would creep downstairs to begin his night.
Alex had learned much about Mrs. Morrison in the last year. He certainly knew her better than anyone else. She had made it very easy for him.
Catherine Morrison's life was stored up in the attic, where it could be best forgotten. Organized carefully into several dusty photo albums. Her childhood, by then only a handful of memories, was a happy one. Trips to the lake, piggyback rides in the winter, and big smiles. In just a single page her childhood was over, and on the next she became a young woman. Wearing beautiful dresses and spending much of her time with a baseball player. He had a long face with an awkward stubby smile. She still had the same big smile from her childhood. It only took two pages for them to become married. The two of them pose in front of a new suburban home. Her husband proudly holding a “SOLD” sign in front of him. She became a school teacher. He continued to play baseball. They both shared the same big smile. Catherine became pregnant. The next seven years followed the same pattern. Catherine's birthday, her husband's birthday, a class photo and their son's birthday. At the end of the seventh year there was a photograph of her husband sitting atop a motorcycle in front of their home, wearing a black leather jacket, and smiling, with their son sitting on his lap. This was the last picture her husband appeared in.
The next year continued as normal. Catherine's birthday, the class photo, her son's birthday. Catherine wasn't smiling anymore. She didn't even seem to be looking at the camera anymore, rather through it, sadly. As if there were something just past the lens that was breaking her heart. Her son looked like his father. He had joined a Little League team that year.
This day, Mrs. Morrison wouldn't be following her usual routine. Her son was bringing her grandchildren to visit. Something that Alex had only seen happen once before in the entire time he had been in this house. Rather than spend the afternoon drifting from book to television to sweets and then back again, Mrs. Morrison cooked. Alex could smell everything. Home-fried chicken, boiled potatoes, some spicy stuffing, and cookies for the grandchildren. The vent over the oven carried incredible temptations to Alex. He tried to focus on his moldy mystery, alleviating his hunger with the crackers and the can of mixed vegetables he had taken the previous night. He realized after a few chapters that he hadn't paid attention to a single word he'd read.
The doorbell rang twice, causing Alex to tense up briefly. He lay down on his makeshift bed and listened. He wouldn't move until the family left. Mrs. Morrison might not have had the best hearing, but with the others he couldn't take any chances. First in were the two grandchildren. They loved their grandmother. She gave them cookies and gifts. The parents followed. The mother was quick to tell the children that they were going to ruin their dinner if they ate those cookies. The father said hello to his mother. His greeting was short. Alex heard Mrs. Morrison's uneven pattern of steps shuffle over the creaky floorboards into the kitchen, followed by the clashing of plate against plate as she tried to bring out the settings for the table. It took her son far too long to offer to help. Alex frowned.
The meal brought common conversation. Mrs. Morrison asked how their drive was, how her grandchildren were doing in school, how her son's career had been going. Her son replied to each question in as few words as possible. His wife told her that this house was too big for one woman, that it was too difficult to maintain and that she should sell it and move to a retirement community. Mrs. Morrison stopped asking questions.
Once the meal was over, they left. There was a token offer to help clean up, but Mrs. Morrison wouldn't have it. Quick goodbyes were given at the door, and it closed, once again isolating Mrs. Morrison from the outside world. Alex took the opportunity to stand and stretch his legs, walking across the attic. He knew that in a moment he would hear Mrs. Morrison drag the serving dishes and plates to the kitchen. That she would clean every dish and carefully wrap every bit of the leftovers for the fridge. He heard nothing. None of her distinctly patterned footsteps. No clinking of glasses or plates being scooped off the table. Nothing. Alex held his breath. Had he made a mistake? Had she heard him walking across the attic?
Alex let the silence and his own accelerating heartbeat hold him for fifteen minutes. He turned and walked tensely back to his bedding, curling up on top of it. He covered his face with his arms, hoping to both cover up the sounds of his panicked breathing and to separate himself from what he was sure was coming. Men storming through the hatch to drag him out into the night, to make him part of the world, again. Jail, or maybe the hospital, again. He'd be homeless after that, waiting in the cold for someone to find a reason to bring him back to one place or another and start it all over again.
The men didn't come through the hatch. Alex waited, but they didn't come. They didn't come, and Mrs. Morrison had started moving again. Alex sat against the wall by his bedding, listening. Something was wrong, but he realized it couldn't have been about him. Alex heard Mrs. Morrison move a few plates, but she'd never gone in to the kitchen. She hadn't left that general area, long after she would usually have gone to bed. To Alex, her routine had been comforting, and it had been almost six months since she had last surprised him. It brought him back to the uncertainty of his homeless days. Alex looked across the attic at the two boxes covering the vent. He knew that he could see what was happening, if he was careful enough. Alex crawled slowly across the attic floor, and reached out to the two boxes. He pressed his hands against the left side of the boxes and slowly eased them to the side at a safe, glacial pace. After a minute of gentle pushing, he had revealed an inch of the vent. Enough to get a view of the dining room and part of the living room. Mrs. Morrison was not in the dining room. The leftovers were still sitting on the table, though the plates had been stacked on top of each other. Moving to the other end of the boxes, Alex pushed them back in the other direction. He stopped short with only a sliver of the vent being visible. He could see Mrs. Morrison sitting on her couch. The TV was off, and the only light in the room was coming from the light above the dining table. She was crying.
Alex crawled back to his bedding and rolled onto his back. He made a note to anticipate abnormal behavior when her family visits. It was dark, and Mrs. Morrison would go to bed soon, then things would go back to normal. Predictable and safe.
He soon heard her uneven footsteps move across the living room towards the stairs, and the familiar rattle began reverberating through the house. Alex let out a long and slow breath, closed his eyes, and sank in to his bedding. Soothed by its warmth and the assuring echo of the loose railing. He thought of the leftovers on the table, and how much of them he might be able to take.
The railing's melody was interrupted by a loud snap, a shrill cry, and a series of dull thuds, ripping Alex out of his comfort to an upright position. Silence followed. He moved cautiously back to the boxes that blocked the vent and began the slow task of pushing them aside. He saw the railing first. It had come completely detached from the wall and now lay crooked across the steps. He heard Mrs. Morrison before he found her, a low trembling moan. He froze when he saw her, his hands still on the boxes. She was on her side at the bottom of the stairs, hands shaking, face bruised, eyes wide open.
Alex stared on from the vent. He followed Mrs. Morrison’s eyes, towards the phone mounted on the wall by the dining table. She managed to extend one of her hands towards the phone, slowly. He told himself that it wasn't too far. That she would be able to crawl that distance, stand, and call for help on her own. She reached forward a few inches, gasped sharply, and pulled her hand back. Alex bit his lip, and tightened his grip on the boxes.
“Please … Help. God help me!” she whimpered, her hands shaking more violently than before.
Alex closed his eyes and thought. There was no way she would move from that spot without help. No one else was going to hear her. Her isolation was one of the reasons he had been able to stay in her home for so long. If he went down there he would be discovered. He would have to run away immediately after calling for help. He'd have to voluntarily go back to the life of uncertainty and fear whose memory had just that night driven him to a panic. Worse, if they caught him they would probably blame him. Brand him as a granny-murderer and send him to prison. If he did nothing, Mrs. Morrison would die. How long would it really be before anyone realized that something was wrong? Two weeks? Three? That would give him more than enough time to get away, when he was ready.
“Not alone.” She groaned, bringing Alex out of his thoughts with a sharp and clumsy jerk, pushing the top box off of the stack. The attic exploded when the box hit the floor. The moldy worn box split apart on impact. Its contents, dusty photo albums, bursting loose, showering the attic with unbound pages and loose photographs.
Alex turned, shell-shocked, to find himself surrounded. A newlywed couple embracing at the altar, a young mother feeding a son who had not yet abandoned her, a little girl with a toothy smile getting a piggyback ride through the snow from her father, and a woman who had just lost her husband, staring straight ahead at Alex, with eyes full of sadness and disappointment. He stood and took a few steps towards the attic hatch, glancing briefly at each of the photographs staring back at him as he passed.
“Please, not alone …”
“You won't be,” whispered Alex, slipping his fingers under the edge of the hatch. “You won't be.”