Things could get depressing in here with that dead body decomposing in the corner. Therefore, I decide to lighten the mood by dressing the corpse as a clown. Just my luck, there's already a chest of costumes up here in the attic, so I don't even have to go downstairs where all the demons are congregating. After searching through the chest, I dress the corpse in a suit of rainbow stripes. I give him a giant polka-dot bowtie and a tiny black top hat the size of a teacup. I don't even have to paint his face white, since he's been deceased for some time now.
"Much better," I say, squeezing the corpse's shriveled hand.
The corpse gives me a stoic look, as usual, but I think I detect a sparkle of appreciation in his eyes.
But enough dilly-dallying, I have work to do. I sit at the oak roll-top desk located in the northern section of the attic. With the iron key that I keep on my person at all times, I unlock the desk. I roll up the sliding cover, hoping that today, I'll find my work undisturbed. But I'm not so lucky.
On my desk, the puzzle is once again in shambles. Yesterday, I had at least half of it completed. As for the remaining pieces, I had organized them into piles of like colors.
I hate to even think this, but I'm beginning to wonder if the corpse is coming to life while I'm asleep, stealing the key and scrambling my puzzle pieces. The corpse and I have never been particularly close, but I always detected and air of mutual respect between us. Why a dead body would want to ruin my work, I have no clue.
The only other possible culprit I can think of is a demon, but it's my understanding that they aren't allowed up here. Their realm is below, where they can control the thermostat and keep the house as blistering as they wish. Thankfully, there's a portable air conditioner up here that helps me to battle the fire and brimstone rising from downstairs.
If a demon were to find his way into this room, I'm sure he would rather scramble my brains than my puzzle pieces. Someone or something else must be responsible for this mischief.
I work on my puzzle for a few minutes before I'm struck by an idea. I feel more than a little idiotic for not thinking of this before. For an hour or more, I search the cardboard boxes lining the walls, but I don't find what I'm looking for. It must be downstairs.
Carefully, I approach the jagged hole in floor and look down. There appears to be a sea of blood in the basement below. The tiny demons ride the waves while standing on human torsos.
"Excuse me," I say. "I'm in need of some assistance."
Only one of the demons looks up at me. He's quite small, perhaps the size of a teacup Chihuahua. His features are mildly human, with white scaly skin, and pink eyes. He looks gaunt and angular, as if he hasn't eaten for quite some time. But that can't be true with so much blood about.
"I was wondering if you could help me?" I say.
"What you want?" the little white demon says, squinting at me. The light must hurt his eyes.
"I'm looking for my video camera. I would go downstairs and look for it myself, but I'm afraid you or one of your friends might flay me alive and devour me."
The demon hops up and down. "Yes, yes! Globcow like that very much! Come here please."
"I'd rather not die today, I'm afraid. But if you could find my video camera for me, I'd be happy to give you something in exchange. Is there anything, aside from my life, that you desire from me?"
"Globcow like feet."
"I don't have any feet to spare."
The demon scratches his bald head. "What about toes?"
"Would you settle for some toenail clippings?"
"Yes, yes! Globcow like toenails very much."
"Toenails it is. Return here in an hour with my video camera, and I'll give you what you wish."
Globcow grins and paddles away.
After returning to my desk, I trim my toenails and set each clipping on a piece of white paper. The pile that I end up with isn't anything to write home about, because I trimmed my nails only a couple weeks ago. I feel more than a little guilty.
I face the corpse. "Would you mind if I clipped yours as well?"
The clown gives me a look of indifference, but I think I detect a glimmer of consent in his eyes. Therefore, my pile grows, and my guilt dissipates. I pour the clippings into a plastic bag and carefully seal away the contents.
At this point, I sit at the oak roll-top desk and work on my puzzle. I busy myself in the upper edge of the image, piecing together cumulus clouds and crows. I don't know how much time elapses, but in time, I find myself in the puzzle. A tingling in my arm notifies me of a presence at my right, but I can't seem to lower my head to see who's beside me. I'm forced to look up at the upper edge of reality, where the clouds tumble in from the northeast and the crows swarm above me.
The most peculiar part about all this is that while I completed at least half of the puzzle yesterday, I can't recall what I saw. My head aches a little as the memory attempts to coalesce, but the image below the clouds remains nothing but a quivering gray fog.
My alarm clock buzzes, pulling me out of the puzzle, back into the attic. After turning off my alarm, I grab the bag of toenail clippings and approach the hole in the floor. I peek over the edge. The sea of blood has been replaced by an enormous ball of trembling bodies. I can't tell from here how the bodies are sticking together as they are, and I probably don't want to know. The demons are lined up on either side of the basement, rolling the large ball back and forth.
"Hello down there," I say. "I'm looking for Globcow."
Globcow rushes out from the shadows and climbs on top of the ball of flesh. He has to constantly move his legs in order to stay balanced on top.
"Did you find the video camera?" I say.
"Yes, yes!" The demon holds up an object that looks vaguely like my camera. "Throw down toenails, then Globcow throw up camera."
"I'm afraid prudence requires me to demand the opposite. You throw me the camera. Then I'll give you the toenail clippings."
Globcow frowns, looking up at me with those big pink eyes of his. After a few moments, he tosses up the camera.
Only the "camera" turns out to be a camera-shaped mass of organs and skin all haphazardly sewn together.
I sigh. "I appreciate your ingenuity, Globcow, but this isn't what I asked for."
"It your camera very much! Give Globcow toenails please."
"I can't do that. You're going to have to find my camera first."
The demon gnaws on his arm in frustration. "Globcow not know where to find camera."
"Keep looking, my friend. I don't want to have to throw these away." I shake the bag of toe clippings over the hole in the floor. "I'll be back in an hour."
Globcow leaps off the ball of bodies and dashes away into the shadows.
After using my foot to push the camera-shaped eyesore into the basement, I return to the roll-top desk. I continue my work. In what feels like no time at all, I'm no longer sitting. I'm standing on an incline, looking up at the somber sky. The wind caresses my face.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a red slash, as if someone cut the sky with a knife. But when I focus my vision on the wound, it turns out to be a chimney. This might be a house. Perhaps my own. For some strange reason, this thought causes me to break out in a chilling sweat. My heart and lungs crescendo. In an instant, all of the saliva in my mouth dries up.
There's someone squeezing my right hand, but when I lower my eyes, all I can see is a quivering gray fog. Part of me feels terrified of this presence. I want to throw the puzzle into the hole in the floor and let the demons devour the image once and for all. Another part of me wants to mash all my puzzle pieces together. I want to see the completed image once and for all. However, I know that a rushed job is never complete. If I rush, I'll end up with severed crow heads sticking out of the roof, shrieking in agony. I'll end up with a house made of sky and a body made of cumulous clouds.
I'm shaking. I feel as if these two conflicting parts of me are attempting to rip me in two. I try to calm myself with deep breathing, but it's no use. In the end, I'm forced to exit the puzzle and discontinue my job. At least for the time being.
During times like this, I've found that the best way to settle my nerves is to work at the stainless steel table located in the southern section of the attic. I have to hop over the hole in the floor in order to get to the southern section. This jump used to terrify me. I would imagine enormous red tentacles wrapping around my legs and pulling me into the shadows below. But these days I leap over the hole without batting an eye.
I approach the table, and rest my hands on the cold steel. This workstation brings to mind those instrument tables used by surgeons. The objects on the table are evenly spaced and lined up precisely. On the very left of the table is a Polaroid camera, followed by the photograph. Next comes the steel lighter with the pi symbol on one side. And at the very right of the table is the steel trash bin.
As always, I start on the left side and work my way right. I point the Polaroid camera at the photograph resting on the table. I take a photograph of the photograph. Moving as slowly and carefully as possible, I return the Polaroid camera to the table. I replace the old photograph with the new photograph. I use the steel lighter to light the old photograph on fire, and I drop the flaming photograph into the steel trash bin. Now that the process is completed, I make sure that all the objects on the table are evenly spaced and lined up precisely.
The new photograph on the table is still nothing but a foggy white square. Therefore, I stand perfectly still and wait. As the image in the photograph coalesces, my heart and lungs decrescendo. I'm not at all positive why this process calms me so. The image in the photograph is simply a photograph of a photograph of a photograph and on and on and on. The newest photograph tells me nothing of the original photograph, because there are too many levels of reality separating them. Perhaps it's this growing separation that settles my nerves. Perhaps the original photograph captured the visage of evil too horrific to be seen. Perhaps my separation from the original photograph is what's keeping the demons out of my attic. Or perhaps this is very far from the truth.
Strangely enough, my confusion about the photographs only adds to the comfort I feel.
I repeat the steel table process a few more times before returning to the northern section of the attic. In the puzzle, my hands don't shake at all. Carefully, I piece together the roof of what may or may not be my own house.
My alarm clock buzzes. I grab the bag of toenail clippings and walk over to the hole in the floor. I peek over the edge. The ball of trembling bodies has been replaced by a mountain of innards. The demons climb up to the top of the mountain and slide down the other side, using femurs for skis.
"Globcow," I say. "Are you there?"
After a moment, the little white demon appears at the top of the mountain, holding what might be my video camera. However, the device seems to be covered with a glowing red substance that I can't identify.
"I hope you're not attempting to deceive me again," I say.
"No, no!" Globcow says. "This your camera very much! Give Globcow toenails please."
"Throw me the camera. Then I'll give you the clipping."
Globcow tosses up the object, which lands beside my right foot.
"Give Globcow toenails please!" the demon says, hopping up and down on the top of the mountain, causing an avalanche of intestines to bury many of the demons below. None of the other demons seem to care about the disaster in the least.
"Hold your horses," I say. "First I need to verify that this is my camera."
"Globcow not own horses. Only Overdemons own horses. You give Globcow horses?"
"I'm afraid I have no horses to give you. I'm going to leave you now, but I'll be back in less than a minute."
I back away and search through the roll-top desk until I find the handkerchief with the pi symbol embroidered on one side. I use the handkerchief to wipe away all the glowing red goop. Yes, this is definitely my old camera. I have no clue whether or not this thing will still work, but at least I can try. I'm thankful that I left this camera in the basement instead of my living room or bedroom where neither I nor a demon could find it. I'm not too sure what happened to the middle of my house. Perhaps those rooms are gone now, or perhaps I simply don't have access to them anymore.
But enough dawdling, Globcow deserves his reward. I toss the bag of toenail clipping to the demon and he hugs the bag tight, grinning from earhole to earhole.
"Thank you for your assistance," I say.
"Thank you very much!" the demon says with his mouth full of clipping.
After he swallows, he salutes me and rolls down the mountain, screaming with glee.
I return to my roll-top desk. I'm not the luckiest person in the world. However, when I press the power button on the video camera, the device actually turns on. In addition, I find a blank tape in the camera, ready to capture the puzzle scrambler red-handed. Carefully, I set the camera on a tower of boxes and I press record.
Tomorrow, I will learn the truth.
As I do every night, I slip into the turquoise sleeping bag next to the desk. The sleeping bag consists of two sleeping bags zipped together. I don't need this much room, but somehow, I don't feel it would be right to separate the two bags.
The moment I close my eyes, I feel the intensity of my exhaustion. I fall asleep immediately. In my dream, I'm dressed in a suit of rainbow stripes. I'm wearing a giant polka-dot bowtie and there's a tiny black top hat on my head the size of a teacup. I fly through the quivering gray fog with Globcow riding on my back. He whips me with a strap of leather. He shouts, "Faster! Faster!" I race forward. I can feel someone squeezing my left hand.
All of a sudden, I break out in a chilling sweat. My heart and lungs crescendo. In an instant, all of the saliva in my mouth dries up.
"Faster!" Globcow says.
"I'm trying!" I say.
"Hurry very much!"
I try to escape the fog, but I'm not fast enough.
I try to scream.
In the morning, I crawl out of my sleeping bag feeling energized and refreshed. The air conditioner breathes onto my stomach as I stare at the only window in the attic. Outside, I see cumulus clouds and a murder of crows and nothing more.
After standing there in the sunlight for a few moments, I remember the video camera. I carefully remove the tape from the camera and I insert it into the TV/VCR, which is located in the northeastern section of the attic. I rewind the tape.
I'm sure that my heart would break a little if the culprit turns out to be the clown or, heaven forbid, my little friend Globcow. My peculiar hope is that the puzzle is somehow scrambling itself. But I'm sure I won't be so lucky.
I press play. I back up a few paces.
On the television screen, I crawl out of my turquoise sleeping bag with a look of utter horror on my face. The look is so extreme that I hardly recognize myself. It's as if I'm wearing a mask. With my arms outstretched like Frankenstein's monster, I approach the roll-top desk and unlock the cover with my iron key. With jerking movements, I scramble the puzzle pieces. After I'm finished wreaking mayhem on my project, I turn to the camera and make a face as if I'm screaming. But I don't make a sound.
I turn off the television and sit at my desk. The room isn't particularly cold, but I shiver. When I close my eyes, I see my own wide-eyed, open-mouthed face etched in the darkness. I attempt to settle my nerves by staring at the corpse in the corner, but I don't even chuckle.
"Why would I do this?" I say. "Why sabotage my own work?"
The clown doesn't reply, but I think I detect a shimmer of understanding in his eyes. He knows why I'm keeping myself from finishing the puzzle, but he won't tell me. Or perhaps, for some reason, he's unable to speak.
At least I know one person who can speak to me.
I get up from the roll-top desk and walk over to the gaping hole in the floor. I peek over the edge. The mountain of innards has been replaced by a jungle gym made of body parts. I spot Globcow grabbing arm and arm, making his way across the monkey bars.
"Globcow," I say. "Can I speak to you for a minute?"
The little demon climbs to the top of the tallest slide and looks up at me. "What you want?"
"I was wondering if you know anything about this attic and what exactly I'm doing here."
"Globcow might know."
"But you want something in exchange for the information?"
"Yes, yes. Give Globcow toenails please."
"I'm afraid my nails haven't grown back yet."
"Globcow like horses very much."
"I still don't have any horses to give you. Is there anything else that you want?"
The demon scratches his bald head. "Globcow not know."
"Well, thank you anyway."
I start to back away from the hole, but the demon says, "Wait!"
"Yes?" I say.
The demon glances around before looking at me and whispering, "Globcow like you very much, so Globcow give you answers for free. Don't tell Overdemons please. They not like free very much."
"I won't say a word to anyone. What can you tell me?"
The demon tilts his head to the side. "Globcow forget what you want to know. Something about feet?"
"I wish to know more about why I'm here. I know that I need to complete a puzzle, but for what purpose? Why do I sleepwalk at night and ruin my work?"
"Globcow not know about puzzle or sleepwalk, but Globcow know why you up there. You there to find out."
"Find out what?"
"You not know that till you find out."
"I see. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"Globcow can tell you names of every foot in collection. Globcow name each one after famous human murderers."
"Maybe another time. Thank you for helping me."
The demon grins and races down a slide made of tongues all sewn together.
I roll up the sliding cover of my desk. I get to work. In no time at all, I'm standing on an incline, looking up at gloomy sky of tumbling clouds and twirling crows. The wind touches my cheeks.
The top of a chimney appears out of nowhere, and I realize that I might be standing near a house. Perhaps my own. For some reason, this idea causes me to break out in a cold sweat.
I can feel someone squeezing my right hand, but when I look at this person, all I can see is a quivering gray fog. Part of me desperately wants to clear away the fog. Another part of me feels comforted by the haze surrounding me.
My body shakes, and in the end, I'm forced to exit the puzzle and hop over to the southern section of the attic.
I set my hands on the cold steel. Unlike the puzzle pieces on the desk, the objects on this table are evenly spaced and lined up precisely. Somehow, the sight of this table causes me to sigh with relief.
As always, I start on the left side of the table and work my way right. I point the Polaroid camera at the photograph resting on the table. I'm about to take a photograph of the photograph when I stop myself.
I need to stop this.
If my purpose here in this attic is to "find out," as Globcow said, then perhaps I should avoid this table. When I work at the steel table, I don't feel as if I'm getting closer to anything. I'm separating myself from the original photograph.
The temptation to take another photograph of the photograph manifests as a tingling in my arms. The tingling travels into my chest, and I gasp for breath. My heart and lungs crescendo. I need to take another photograph. I don't want to find out.
With as much strength as I can muster, I kick the steel table at the gaping hole in the floor. The table falls into the darkness, along with the Polaroid camera, the lighter, the trashcan. As for the photograph, it sits precariously on the edge of the floor. Part of me wants to pick up the photograph and stare at the image until I'm lost within, but instead, I use my foot to push the square into the basement.
I peek over the edge and watch as Globcow takes photographs of his fellow demons. Every time the flash goes off, the demons shriek and Globcow cackles with glee.
After returning to the northern section of attic, I continue my work on the puzzle. This time, there will be no sleep for me until I'm finished.
My hands tremble as I build a house that may or may not be my own. In time, I begin piecing together my own body. I'm terrified that I'll end up with the me from the videotape. The me with the outstretched arms and the wide-eyed, open-mouthed face. However, the me in the puzzle turns out to be a ringmaster with a tall black top hat and a long crimson coat.
I feel someone squeezing my hand. I imagine a beast hiding in the quivery gray fog, gripping my hand with an enormous red tentacle. My body shakes. All of the saliva in my mouth dries up. I need to get out of here. I need to leap into the gaping hole in the attic and retrieve the photograph from the shadows below.
No. I must find out.
Outside of the puzzle, my eyes and fingers dart about feverously. But inside the puzzle, I can't see. I can't move. The fog presses on me from all sides, and I feel I'm going to be squashed out of existence at any moment. When I open my mouth to scream, the quivering grayness wiggles down my throat, filling up my lungs.
At last, the fog clears.
The one squeezing my hand isn't a beast with red tentacles, but a clown with a giant polka-dot bowtie and a tiny black top hat the size of a teacup. However, Harry isn't truly a clown. He's a math teacher. And more than that, he's the man I love. He's the circumference to my diameter, as Harry would say.
"I'm sorry," I say.
"For what?" Harry says, holding my hand.
I want to tell him that I'm sorry for forgetting about our life together. I want to admit to him that all the time I existed in the attic, I didn't think about him once. But I'm too ashamed to say a word.
"Say cheese," our daughter says, standing in front of us, dressed as a Charlie Brown ghost.
Our daughter takes our photograph with the Polaroid camera.
All of a sudden, I'm in the attic again, and the puzzle is complete. In the image, I'm standing next to Harry in what looks like a graveyard, but it's actually the front of our house. There are clouds and crows swarming in the sky, perfect for Halloween. Hours after our daughter took this photograph, I found Harry sitting on his leather Laz-Z-Boy recliner, his eyes open a tiny slit. I told him to wake up, but he would not.
"You died," I say, facing the corpse in the corner.
The clown gives me a look of apathy, but I think I detect a twinkle of love in his eyes. The love grows, causing his withered face to fill out with healthy flesh. In what feels like no time at all, the corpse becomes Harry.
I hold him. I kiss him.
"I missed you," he says.
For a few moments, my mind buzzed with anger. Someone or something trapped me in this attic and forced me to forget about Harry.
But then I remember. I remember the original photograph on the stainless steel table. The image I continually distanced myself from was the same image on the puzzle. I was the one keeping myself from the truth. I was the one who created the fog in the first place.
"I'm sorry," I say. "After you died, I couldn't-"
"Don't sweat it," Harry says. "It's all over now."
As he kisses my forehead, the attic dissipates.
And Harry's right. It's over.
... continued ...