“Hey, Mom, who’s this,” Holly yelled, waving an oval picture frame at me from across the attic.
Could it be, I thought squinting through the flurries of dust motes Holly’s waving had created. Alma, my God, I hadn’t let myself think about Alma in years. I could feel a pulse throbbing above my right eye as I snatched the picture from my daughter for a better look. The sweet little girl in the picture had large blue eyes and masses of curly blonde hair tied back with an aqua ribbon.
“It’s Alma,” I whispered, more to myself than to Holly. “My sister Alma.”
(Born with a caul over her face!)
“I have an Aunt Alma,” Holly asked, wrinkling her pug nose.
“No, Honey, Alma died long ago.”
“How come I never knew about her?” twelve-year old Holly questioned, hands on slim hips.
“Alma was . . . different. Our family never talked about her much. Come on, now let’s get Grandma’s attic cleaned out. The couple that bought this house would like to move in next week.”
“Why is her nose bleeding?” Holly was still studying the picture.
“Her nose isn’t bleeding, Honey.” I started folding up old clothes and sorting them into boxes.
“Holly, would you start over there in Grandpa’s corner? All those tools and jars of nails are going to the church. Can you pack them up in these boxes for me?’ I handed her two cardboard boxes.
“Mom, her nose IS bleeding.”
“No,” I said stubbornly. My hands trembled.
“Mo-om, look. It’s blood. Why take a picture of someone with a bloody nose?”
I didn’t want to look.
“Mom, what’s wrong? Why are you wiping your hands like that?” Holly’s voice took on a high, fearful whine. Without thinking, I was scrubbing my hands across the old clothes.
I struggled to pull myself together for her sake.
“Nothing’s wrong, Honey. I’m fine, really. Just brushing off the cobwebs.”
(Blood on my hands—under my nails. Alma’s nose bleeding?)
A gust of wind whirled through the dust motes and hit the attic door, slamming it shut with a crash.
“I’m scared,” Holly whined. “Can we go home now?”
(Excellent idea. Let’s get the hell out of here.)
I hastily wiped my hands one last time on one of Dad’s old thin strap tee-shirts. “I think we’ve done enough for today,” I tried to keep my voice from shaking. “What say we go for ice cream and finish this tomorrow?”
Holly was already yanking at the door. Her wide blue eyes—
turned back to me, straining and stricken with fear. “The door won’t open,” she said in a panicky whisper. "We’re locked in!”
“Don’t be silly. It’s probably just stuck.”
But the door wouldn’t open.
Frustrated, I kicked it and lashed out at it with my fists, pounding and yelling. I could feel panic rising inside me like flood waters. Holly, eyes wide and sparkling with tears, had backed into a corner. With both hands over her mouth she watched me bash at the attic door. I knew that my irrational behavior was frightening her. I must have looked like a candidate for a padded cell.
Finally exhausted, I put my back to the door and took deep breaths, trying to steady my nerves.
Holly was sobbing now.
Across the room, a ray of sunlight hit the glass of Alma’s old picture and sparkled there like a tiny light bulb.
(I should never have come back here.)
“I should never have come back here.”
“Mom,” Holly whispered through her fingers. “What’s the matter? Dad knows we’re here. He’ll come and get us.”
I sighed and plunked down on a box next to my daughter. “Of course he will, Honey. Of course he will.”
I felt the need to explain my actions to my daughter, although I wasn’t sure she was old enough to know about Alma.
“I was always afraid of Alma,” I began with a hoarse whisper.
(Alma could always hear . . .)
Briefly, I explained my fears. How Alma, born with a caul over her face, could do things: like move things and make herself or us bleed. Alma could roll her big blue eyes back until only the whites showed and make things happen.
What I didn’t tell her was about the day when Alma was twelve and I was thirteen. About the day when I put my hands around my little sister’s throat and squeezed until blood oozed from her nose and ears. Squeezed the nasty life out of my own sister right here, in this attic.
Tied her heavy, lifeless body to the huge beams above and scrawled her suicide note.
When I had finished the story, I looked up—expecting that Holly would have questions.
I wasn’t prepared for the smirk on her face. Blood trickled from her little pug nose.
“Honey, did you cut your . . .”
A hideous chuckle gurgled from my daughter’s smiling lips. I watched as her eyes rolled back until only the whites showed.
Horrified, I heard the tinkling of the nails inside their dusty glass jars. Like a hideous torrent of black rain those nails flew toward me.
Blinded by the flying steel, I heard only part of Alma’s words before the tip of Dad’s screwdriver stopped my heart.
“Now, we’re even, sis . . .”
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