- Author : Gwendolyn Kiste
"The Woman Out of the Attic" was originally published in Flame Tree's Haunted House anthology
Out this week is The Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters. This coming- of-age horror novel focuses on a group who have named themselves the Dead Girls Club in celebration of the generally nameless victims of serial killers. They played a game when they were kids, leaving one of them dead. The girl’s mother took the blame and went off to jail for years. The narrative alternates between the past leading up to the events of the death, and the present, where we learn the mother has been released from jail. The pacing is excellent, cutting away from each timeline leaving us wanting to jump ahead, but we dare not.
Don’t just take my word for this. This week’s author, Gwendolyn Kiste said “Damien Angelica Walters once again proves why she’s a major voice in the horror and thriller genres…Put this on your reading list now, as it’s sure to be among the top books of 2019.”
Want a sample or a reminder of her work? Make sure to check out the stories of hers we’ve run before, including “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love” and “Falling Under, Through the Dark” and “Scarred.” Or you can check out the original story “In the Deepest Darkest Holes” that she contributed to our 10th anniversary anthology “For Mortal Things Unsung.”
The Woman Out of the Attic
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Here’s what you know for sure: you won’t survive the film. There’s no chance a woman like you will live to see the end credits. Heck, you might not make it through the opening credits.
But even if you’re dead before the very first frame, that doesn’t mean you’re gone. There are other ways of being in the picture. You could, for instance, linger like a ghost, there and not there. A whisper in the heroine’s ear, a dull ache in the brooding hero’s heart.
But it’s important that you remember: this isn’t your story. None of this—not the man or the glory or the happy ending—belongs to you.
Please don’t forget. Or the film will have to remind you.
You blink into existence and wonder where you are. Who you are. This could be many different places, and you could be many different people.
For instance, if the audience is in the mood for propriety and corsets, this could be England in the 19th century, and you’re the wife tucked away in an attic, forgotten like a yellowed family photo album or a box of moth-eaten winter clothes.
Or this could be mid-century after the war with you as a bright-eyed, wanton socialite, or maybe it’s modern-day and you’re a lonely career girl who isn’t eager to be ignored. After all, there’s never a lack of women who misbehave in a world desperate to correct them for it.
You blink again, and regain your bearings. This time, your role is simple. This time, you’re already dead.
Your husband isn’t your husband anymore, and you’re haunting his mansion where he’s got a new woman at his side, a dewy, ruddy-cheeked bride. She might have a name. She probably won’t. Or if she does, he’ll never use it. Instead, he calls her what she means to him.
Beloved. Wife. Mine.
For what it’s worth, she knows your name. As she wanders the long corridors alone, your name brands itself on her tongue, though she never speaks it aloud. That, of course, won’t stop her from speaking about you.
“I hear she was very beautiful,” his bride whispers, and the staff members on the estate nod and hurry about their business.
This is what you’ve come to expect. Your beauty is the one thing everyone remembers about you. It was all you had to offer. You were never a nice girl. You laughed too loudly. You stayed out until dawn. You enjoyed sex, and sometimes not with your husband. If his new bride wants to do better than you, she should be a good little wife and stop with the questions now.
But perhaps she isn’t as docile as they think. The bride keeps asking, and everyone keeps pretending they don’t know what she’s talking about. Especially her new husband.
“Do you grow roses on the grounds?” she asks him at dinner, and he bristles on instinct.
“Absolutely not,” he says with a snuff, and doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t tell her how he hacked down your dozen rosebushes the day after your funeral, his palms blistered and his face burnt and twisted in the sun.
At the other end of the long table, his bride blushes and regards her plate of sirloin and wilted asparagus. “That’s strange,” she says. “I swear I smell them everywhere I go here.”
At this, he slams down his wine glass, the jagged shards shattering across the scarlet tablecloth. He storms off without another word, and with dinner abruptly over, she sneaks off to the study, where she cries alone at a blackened hearth.
You ripple through the walls after her. You aren’t a very good ghost. A ghost would haunt this young girl, terrify her in this moment of grief. All you want to do is comfort her, though you don’t know how.
As you watch her in the lamplight glow, she reminds you of someone. The gap between her teeth, the way her hair falls over her eyes. You barely remember who you are, but somehow, you remember her.
Films can play tricks on you. They can cast the same person in two roles, or reincarnate someone just for kicks, just to drive the knife in deeper.
You do your best to avoid her, to avoid remembering, but she senses you in the house. She’s the only one who seems to know you’re still here. When he retires to bed in his separate room each night, she whispers to the high-up cornices on the ceiling.
“What do you want?” she asks, her voice sweet as candy floss, but trembling too. “I’ll give you anything. Anything except him.”
You try to tell her you don’t want him and that she shouldn’t want him either, but you’re dead, and nobody listens to the dead.
As she sleeps, you smooth her hair, and you hum her a lullaby to help her through a nightmare. In the darkness, she calls out his name, not yours. As though he’s the one here to comfort her.
Then she returns to dreaming. You pretend you can still dream too.
On a lonely winter morning, you stumble upon her in the wardrobe that was once yours. It’s filled with her satin gowns purchased in expensive boutiques on the Champs-Elysees. You know because those are the same places he took you on your honeymoon.
She runs her fingers along the tailored seams. “I don’t belong here,” she says.
At first, you think she’s talking to herself. Until you realize she’s speaking to you. His bride is having a conversation with a ghost.
You part your lips to respond, but no sounds comes out.
In every version of the film, one thing is a constant. You always ask yourself the same question: how did I die this time?
Maybe it was in an accident. That’s if you’re lucky. More than likely, your end was something much more sinister. A coarse hand around your neck, a dollop of rat poison in your afternoon high tea. So long as you got what was coming to you.
It’s a lesson every girl learns early. Strange women, disobedient women, never claw their way to a happy ending. They put their heads in ovens or stones in their pockets. They swallow lye. They wrap a rope around their throats instead of waiting for a hand to come along and do the job for them.
Or they take the hard way out like you did. They marry a man who everyone loves and wait until the day he no longer loves them.
The film will be halfway over before he makes his confession to his bride. The midpoint is the perfect time for a Byronic man to spew his secrets to a woman who shouldn’t have to listen. But you always listen. Because until he speaks it aloud, you aren’t completely certain how you died. Film after film, you always have your suspicions, but until he names it, you can’t be sure.
“She was so beautiful,” he says, reminding the audience again of your worth.
His gaze is set on some faraway point, and his bride huddles next to him in the bedroom or the boathouse or the bathtub where you died.
“But after we married,” he says, “she changed.”
You could play a game of bingo with the words that inevitably follow.
Spoiled. Lying. Lascivious.
“She had unchaste desires,” he whispers, and says no more about it, because to him, this is your greatest sin, the one too terrible to mention aloud. A woman who doesn’t swoon at her handsome husband, who swoons at someone else instead. Another woman’s husband perhaps. Or another woman.
“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he says, and spends more time describing what he did to you than who you were. His brow knit, he insists you coerced him into hurting you. How it was all your fault.
You wonder if he’s ever stopped to think how a woman should never be able to goad her husband into murdering her.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his words and heart hollow, and his bride watches him, tears glistening in her earnest eyes. She must be crying for him, but you pretend she’s weeping for you. For how he owns your narrative, and shapes it like clay in his hands.
At this point, you wish you could rewind the film and try again. You would take this new information about your death, and you would try to live. It wouldn’t matter, though. The film would always turn out the same way. That’s because you’re the same. You won’t get a happy ending.
The film has taught you that much.
Now his bride knows about you. He thinks, his chest puffing out like a peacock, that she’ll feel for him. That she’ll understand him and what he’s done. That he has her in the palm of his hand forever.
But as the winter days wear into spring, she isn’t so worried about him anymore. It’s you she can’t stop thinking about. Each afternoon, while he’s out, she gazes at your faded portrait strung above the staircase. A flicker of memory passes across her face. You want to call to her, to tell her you remember too, but the moment is quickly gone.
Still, the two of you have plenty of time to get to know each other. Her husband’s always away on some obscure errand.
“What does he do when he’s gone?” she asks you, and though you could tell her all about his dubious business dealings, she doesn’t really want to talk about him.
She wants to talk to you. Sitting cross-legged on the lawn, she leans back next to the air you occupy and smiles. She tells you her secrets. She tells you her name. You spend every day together, listening to the sea if it’s nearby in this version, or listening to the wind if you’re landlocked. Or maybe just listening to each other, her body nestled in the dirt where your rosebushes used to grow.
“What are you doing out there in the muck?” her husband asks when he returns home early, but she only shrugs.
“He’s a fool,” she whispers to you in the dark that night, and giggles. You’re desperate to giggle back, to share something as intimate as joy with her, but you lost your voice when he stole it from you.
She turns over in bed to sleep, and your invisible hand lingers over her.
“I love you,” you want to say, but the white noise of your existence rattles in the empty walls, fading like an echo into the night.
There are no moments in the film from your point of view. This isn’t your story, remember. But if you could get only one scene, this is what you’d choose: the day you met her.
It might have happened at a boarding school or a Beverly Hills high school or in the forest behind the church where you skipped out early on Sunday school. It doesn’t matter the era or the place. She was always there, and you always recognized her.
It was behind a line of rosebushes where she sneaked off to smoke, so the headmistress or pastor wouldn’t see her. You stumbled upon her there, and she grinned at you, a tiny impish gap between her front teeth.
“Hello,” she said, and you blushed and smiled back at her.
After that, you met there regularly. Every day if you could, you saw her, and every moment, you thought of her. The two of you in the grass, giggling, her hair falling over her eyes.
“We don’t have to stay here,” she said, and you wished that were true. You wished you could run or fly or vanish together.
But you couldn’t, especially once your parents found out about her. They kept you apart, locking you in your room, letting you out only for school and sometimes not even then. They told you what you wanted was wrong, and because you were tired and afraid and worn down, you believed them. You spent every moment for the rest of your very short life hating yourself for it, but you believed them.
So when a man with a fortune and a mansion and no love in his heart proposed to you, you had no reason to decline. No reason except her.
You asked her to meet you in front of the rosebushes at midnight. She brought her satchel, and this twisted a blade in your guts. She thought the two of you were running away together. It was what you both wanted, but what you couldn’t have. Not in this version anyhow.
You shook your head, not looking at her. “I’m sorry.”
You told her goodbye, and then you left to tell him yes.
As you walked away, you didn’t turn back.
Afterward, no one ever mentioned what happened to her, and you never asked. But it was easy to guess. A razor, a rope, an accident. You already knew how it ended for women like you.
You tried not to think of any of that. Instead, you put on white lace and a string of vintage pearls tighter than a noose, and you took the longest walk of your life down that aisle.
At the altar, he lifted your veil, and you kissed his lips, but all you could taste were roses.
Back to the house you haunt. Back to being dead.
It’s a humid afternoon, spring rain pattering against the stained glass windows, and his bride wanders down a hallway and hums a song under her breath.
From inside his study where he hunches over a mountain of useless papers, he hears her, and with his eyes dark, he charges into the hallway and takes hold of her arm.
“Where did you learn that song?” he demands, tightening his grasp until she cries out.
She yanks herself free. “I don’t remember.”
That’s because she never learned it, not on purpose. It’s the lullaby you sing to her in her sleep. That means she can hear you, even if she doesn’t realize it. This strikes an ember of hope in your heart. Just because you’re a ghost doesn’t mean you have to give up.
Besides, what you want is so simple: to exist. To not be erased the way the film intends. You aren’t asking that much, but in a world like this, you’re asking for everything. You’re demanding the basic plot be rearranged in your favor.
But that’s what you want, and that’s what you have to fight for.
There’s a box of matches on the mantle. Later, they’ll say it was faulty wiring or a drip candle that didn’t go out the way it should have. They won’t know it’s your hand that reaches through the in-between and strikes the flame into existence.
(These familial estates always burn to the ground, don’t they? Secrets must make for the best kindling.)
You wait until she’s outside on a walk around the grounds, and he’s in his study, but it does no good. He escapes the smoky hallways anyhow, and they reunite in front of the crumbling house. As you stare out the window through the fire, he loops his arms around her, as if to remind you: she’s mine, forever and always. She can’t be yours. Love can never be yours.
She sobs silently into his chest, not looking at you, not able to do anything except cry out.
You want to cry out too, but the flames draw closer and melt what little remains of you. As the world cascades to black, you watch your former husband and you burn and you hate him with every cinder left sparking inside you, until there’s nothing left of you at all.
The films starts over. The era might be different this time, and the mansion might be in the Art Deco style rather than the Queen Anne, but the fundamental thing remains: you’re dead from the get-go. It’s pointless to think you could change that, so you creep up into the ceiling and leave her to celebrate what ought to be her wedded bliss.
But she doesn’t want to be alone with him anymore. She wants to be with you. She remembers the before, gauzy as a dream. Bits and pieces, out of focus, just enough to make her want to know more.
“Where are you?” she whispers to the walls, her fingers gliding along the plaster, as though she’s searching for a heartbeat.
Your heartbeat. You wish she could find it.
Her husband leaves the house less often now, especially once he notices her spending more time looking for you than at the dinner table or in the four- poster bed with him.
“You have your duty,” he tells her, and this chills you to the bones you no longer have.
The fire starts earlier in the film this round, and you aren’t the one to light the match. You couldn’t light it if you tried. Your spectral hands are numb suddenly, and you don’t know why.
As the mansion burns to the ground at midnight, she watches helplessly from the front lawn, tears streaking her rouged cheeks. In the final frame, you stare out from the window and wish she could see you, but her eyes stare blindly through you, and because she can do nothing else, she shudders and turns away.
Back into the darkness. Why can’t you just find a way to survive?
In the garden where your roses used to grow, you meet her again, as if for the first time. You’re still a ghost, and she’s still a newlywed, but it feels different somehow. Like maybe this time, she’s yours, and you’re hers.
“I can almost remember it all,” she says to you. “Both of us here before. Do you remember too?”
If only you could smile and tell her that all ghosts can do is remember.
She misses his birthday supper that night, and his anger flares at her, the way it used to flare at you.
“I won’t tolerate this behavior,” he says, and you both know what he means. He sees how she converses openly with you, waiting and listening day and night for you, the phantom hanging over the film.
He watches her through narrowed eyes, his fists clenched, and all you want is to protect her. You want to do something , but you’re so strangely tired now. Too tired even to smooth the cowlick from her hair after the gaslight goes out. It seems the more she remembers about you, the weaker you become. Another trick of the film to ensure it gets its way.
In the last reel, he grins and lights the match when no one’s looking. But even as the wallpaper peels away like flesh, she doesn’t run with him. She stays in the house searching for you until all the servants come for her, coughing and clawing and pulling her to safety.
She screams, as they drag her out the front door. “Where are you?” she calls out, and you only wish you knew.
You’re fading too. Even the dead have a shelf life, and someone might say you’ve done pretty well for yourself. A hundred run-throughs of this film at least. And anyhow, you’re a ghost, and ghosts don’t get happy endings. The same as women like you. Stop expecting anything else.
But this film keeps playing, keeps looping.
Try again. Try one last time.
You can barely speak, barely move this time. There are no respites in the garden, no giggles in the bedroom. You’re thinner than mist and less substantial.
“Please,” she whispers. “Don’t leave me.”
You wish you could stay, but the final scene comes so early this time. His hand that lights the match. A blaze you can’t escape. They haul her to safety, and in front of the burning estate, he pulls her into him with a rough hand.
She recoils and turns back to the house, back to you. The flames move into you and through you, and the end credits are drawing nearer. This is almost over, probably for the last time. Weeping, she gazes up at your window. You expect nothing to happen, just like nothing’s happened before, but an electric look passes between you, and you’re sure of it: she sees you.
And she remembers everything.
The meeting among the roses, the engagement that shouldn’t have been, all the incarnations of the film that came before.
You think she hates you for abandoning her, to condemning the two of you to this fate. You’re wrong. She stares at the smoldering mansion, and with her eyes wild and unafraid, she calls out to you.
This is the first time she’s said your name, and at once, something in you shifts. The weight of the past and a thousand lives lost whirlpool within you, and you’re no longer without form. As the heat closes in on you, you don’t dissolve. You become the fire. Your body is whole again but different: more powerful, and surging through the halls you’ve haunted, devouring everything in your path.
She sees you there in the flames, peering out all the windows, turning the beautiful gowns he bought her on their Parisian honeymoon to ash. She should be afraid. She should run with the rest.
But she doesn’t. She walks to you instead.
Her husband, the man the two of you have shared, glowers on the lawn, his heart cold as the hand he placed around your neck. This isn’t how his story is supposed to end. Jaw set, he starts back toward the house, ready to admonish her, to strike her, to drag her back to him by her hair, but the flames rise—you rise—and knock him backward.
Not her, though. She keeps coming.
He’s frozen there in the grass, choking on the smoke, watching her go. He would scream her name if he remembered it, but she’s merely his wife, his missus, the second incarnation of you.
You aren’t the same as him. You know her name, and over the roar of the fire, you speak it to her. You repeat that name until she smiles and you’re sure she hears you.
She’s on the front stairs now, on the precipice of you. Without hesitating, she swings opens the door to what’s left of the mansion, and the two of you are truly alone for the first time.
“Hello,” you say, as she crosses the threshold, and her hand reaches out for you. The heat of your new body should melt the flesh from her bones, but the flames don’t sear her skin. Instead, she moves into you, and all at once, she becomes the fire too.
Together, you keep burning, and you don’t stop, not when her husband and the staff come with their buckets of well water, or when they bring in a whole village with firehoses and hand-powered pumps. There are more extras here than this film could ever afford.
They’re too late. The opulent floors of the house collapse beneath you, and even once the mansion’s fallen, you keep going. Burning on with no kindling except yourself. All the while, her husband stands there, watching the film he thought belonged to him dissolve to nothing at his feet. The last turret of his estate crumbles, and he screams out again, your name this time, but it’s for nothing. The extras have retreated in defeat, and no one’s left to hear him now.
The last of the Technicolor film stock unspools, but you don’t fade to black this time. Wrapped up as one, you and his bride-no-more laugh together, and as your flames rise to the sky, the scent of roses fills the air.