The smell of the attic in 76 Pine Avenue was of hot wood. My parents put a rug down in the main section so I wouldn’t get splinters, but I always managed to, anyway. I remember repeated sessions with my mother holding my finger up to a naked light bulb, squeezing the skin and trying to nudge it back with sharp, tense tweezers. I never learned.
There were other dangers in the attic: raised, rusty nails in the floorboards, mousetraps, even the occasional bat. Once, when my mother told me she had found a dead bat in one of the moving boxes, I begged her to let me see. I had read about bats, their fangs, leathery wingspan, rabies. They terrified me. When she folded back the cardboard flaps to let me see, the two of us kneeling on the scratchy rug, I peered in, my heart jumping double-dutch. But the bat was nestled between the side of the box and a pile of books, furled up and soft looking. Its wings had folded up like shades under its tiny arms, its eyes were closed, a sweet, sad thing. I was disappointed to discover that something so frightening could be so pitiful.
The biggest danger of all, though, according to my mother, was not the bats in the attic. It was the enclosed balcony with one window that looked out over the front of our house, the view of 76 Pine Avenue. The balcony was completely off limits. “It’s not stable,” my mom had said. “If you stepped out on it, the whole balcony could fall out from under you.” I imagined this fall, what it would be like to crash three stories down to the paved front walk below, how much it would hurt. I had caught my foot in the spokes of a bike at age 5, slicing the skin clean off the left outside heel. I wondered if the crash would hurt more than that. I had never come within a foot of the balcony, because I didn’t think I wanted to find out.
76 Pine Avenue offered other dangers.
The summer after I turned 11, I once forgot to take my shoes up from the back stairs three days in a row. On the third day that I had forgotten, my stepfather never complained. But when I got into bed that night, there were cornflakes in my sheets. I went downstairs in my shin-length Garfield nightgown and said, laughing, “Does anyone know why there are corn flakes in my bed?” My stepfather glared at me. He spoke cool and measured, like a hissing tire: “You leave a mess for me, I leave a mess for you.” I stopped laughing. His eyes narrowed and held mine, unwavering in their rage. I had never seen an adult look at me that way.
And still there would be other dangers. Like how the sound of my teenage voice could fill him like a kettle with anger. Like how he would take my door off the hinges as punishment for slamming it. Pick me up by the ankles and neck and throw me on my bed so that my bony knees knocked into each other. Grab me by the throat and shove my head against the corner edge of a wall to make sure I understood clearly that talking back was not acceptable.
One July summer day, months before the corn flakes and years before the wall, I was home alone, playing up in the attic. I heard the afternoon bells of St. Timothy’s chime at noon, and I looked out the guestroom window towards their call.
I walked through the guestroom, paused just before the balcony. Outside I saw the hedges, green and overgrown, and Pine Avenue, just a slice of street in front of our house. I stepped onto the balcony. The wood flooring dipped slightly under my weight. I peered out the window, closer than I’d ever been, leaned against a pane of glass, still kissed with warmth from the morning sun, and let my forehead rest there. The floor beneath me creaked. I had never allowed myself to get so close to the window; for the first time, I could see more than just the brown Victorian home with white shutters in front of ours. Now I could see the grass in our yard, overgrown and deep green, and the silk-shawl sky draping the roofs of so many houses that stretched out in both directions. The whole balcony groaned underneath me, but I knew somehow it would never fall.
I remembered this years later, when we lived in another house, the night my stepfather fell down the stairs and lay there, stunned and helpless. Fear ripped through me. Even though I was scared of him, he was still the man I called Dad. “Are you okay?” I asked. My mom wasn’t home and I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Get out of here,” he mumbled, waving me away but still not getting up off his back.
“Are you okay?” I pleaded, moving toward him.
“Get out of here!” he screamed, waving me off with a jerk of his arm.
I turned around and walked out the door, disappearing into darkness. My white-coal-hot cheeks were untempered by the March air as I walked, fists shoved into pockets, toward nothing at all.
His fall jarred something in my memory, and I recalled that old balcony, the fear of falling, the discovery that my mother’s warnings of danger didn’t prove true. I remembered the soft-looking little bat, snug in his attic box, and thought of how scared he must have been, alone there in the dark, a fanged killer, a legendary predator, when he realized he was trapped. A sweet, sad thing. And so pitiful.
Alexis Wiggins has an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Creative Nonfiction, and StorySouth, among others.