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After a few stairs Joshua put his hands to either side to help guide him as the light waned. His left hand suddenly encountered air and he knew he had come to the turn.
He felt along with his left foot to get his bearings then slowly turned towards the left, sliding his left hand around the corner to find the adjoining wall. He shuffled slowly until his foot bumped into the bottom of the next stair up, and again, he slowly began to climb. About ten stairs up he saw the thin, bright line under the door to the attic. He was almost there.
He reached it, and put his hand on the knob, and cautiously turned it. The light from the sky above made it easy to see, and yet, somehow, the attic still retained a vestigial darkness, as if it gave off a cimmerian shade the way a bulb gives off illumination.
The first thing he noticed was the wide yawn of hole, right in the center of the floor. There was still enough left on either side to walk around, yet it somehow seemed too narrow. With a fatal certainty he knew he was going to have to go around it.
The next thing he noticed was the mirrors. Row after row lined the walls, covering almost every bare space. Some were large and ornate, some small and plain. All glinted and reflected light in a strange and passive way. And all were broken. Some with large, harsh rents, some with a fine, misting web of cracks, but not a single one was whole.
Joshua approached the nearest one and gazed into it. In it he saw a young girl, maybe ten or eleven. She was dressed as a ballerina with a long, graceful skirt. She was peering fixedly into a mirror while she finished her hair, positioning enameled flower clips into her rich red curls. She was excited, expectant.
Someone out of view must have called her, because she turned around, but Joshua could hear nothing. She rushed out and the scene followed her, onto a stage, behind a dark, velvet curtain.
She posed herself and waited as the curtain began to ascend. Silently she began to dance, graceful, sweet, and beautiful. You could see her love for the dance as her eyes sparkled and her face beamed. She was enchanting. But as Joshua watched he noticed the ribbon of her right ballet slipper starting to loosen. The girl had no idea and kept on dancing. He watched in mounting concern as it slowly unfurled as gracefully as the dancer who wore it.
Joshua couldn’t help crying out, ‘Hey, your shoe!’ But she never heard him. Her feet became entangled, her shoe half-slipped off, and she fell, awkwardly, with whirling arms. It would have been comical if it had been intentional. She landed face down, managing to catch herself the moment before her nose slammed into the stage, but her skirt flew up, over her head. She tried to pull it off, but the gauzy material got stuck on her enameled flower clips. Joshua winced, feeling her humiliation as his own.
She finally got the skirt off of her head, with a large tear, and looked around, her eyes widening in horror. The scene shifted so that Joshua could see the audience. They were laughing, great, big soundless O’s of vicious humor. They pointed, some even mockingly clapped. Large tears pooled in the girl’s eyes, and she jumped up and hurried off stage, but tripped once more on the traitorous shoe.
Now she was sobbing. She tore the shoe off her foot, and limping, ran backstage. The scene then hazed and shifted to an older woman with dim red hair going grey, and soft, sad eyes. It was the little ballerina, all grown up, and she was sitting on a bed in a cheap and worn room. The walls were yellowed with age and cracked, like she was, the room dingy and poorly lit. On the bed was laid out the fateful costume, the skirt still ripped, the enameled flower clips chipped and covered by the dull patina of time.
The woman lovingly and gently fingered the skirt and closed her eyes. Joshua could see the tears glide down her cheeks. And then the scene again hazed and shifted, and he saw the young ballerina once again fixing her hair, looking excited and expectant.
Joshua backed away, unintentionally looking into another mirror, where another scene began to play out. A young boy of perhaps thirteen was sitting at a desk, sketching. He had black hair and thickly lashed, expressive eyes. He was very intent and focused on whatever it was he was drawing, occasionally thrusting a piece of hair out of his eyes. The scene moved in closer and Joshua could see the boy was sketching strange, faceless, hairless women wearing extravagant clothes. He watched as the boy expertly added details, shading delicately, and adding bold colors. After a moment Joshua realized he was sketching his own fashion designs. He had seen his sisters and girls at school doing the very same thing, although they usually took more time with the makeup and the hair, the clothes they drew never more than simple and basic. Nothing like the genius that this boy displayed.
Suddenly the boy turned around as his door was thrust open. In stormed a wanely pale woman, wearing a threadbare, imitation silk nightgown, the straps falling off of her shoulders, the gown barely clinging to her wiry and hanging form. Her face looked rough and worn with dark circles of smudged makeup under her eyes; a streak of pink lipstick trailed off the corner of her mouth. Perhaps, once, she had been beautiful, but life had used her hard and it showed in every line of her face. In one hand she clutched a bottle half full of amber liquid and with the other hand she shoved a hank of dirty, fuzzy black hair out of her eyes in much the same manner the boy had.
Her smudged mouth was shouting, though Joshua could hear no sounds, and her free hand was gesturing emphatically at the boy’s sketches. She picked one up and her face stretched grotesquely into a mocking laugh. She waved it in front of the boy’s face then with a snarl dashed it to the ground.
The boy jumped up in protest but she shoved him out of the way and slammed her bottle on the desk and proceeded to sweep the papers off. The small lamp also went shattering to the floor. Then she began snapping his colored pencils in two. The boy cried out a soundless “No,” and tried to take them from her but she slapped his face and he fell back.
Seeing him lying on the floor she spat out what Joshua thought were the words “You’re pathetic.” She then grabbed her bottle and reached towards the door, pausing to look back and sneer words that Joshua could discern clearly, because his Aunt had said them to him many times. “Clean up this mess.” Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her. The boy lay on the floor for a minute, fighting back tears, and then his face crumpled into rage and hate and he grabbed at his pictures and began tearing them to pieces.
The scene hazed and shifted. The boy was now a young man, walking down a night painted street with several friends. They were laughing and parading about as though they were kings. The young man was dressed in tight, dark jeans, heavy looking black boots, a black t-shirt, and an elegant, but worn looking black velvet coat. His hair was styled high and long, and his eyes were thickly lined. He turned off at one of the buildings, waving at his friends, stopping to laugh at something one of them said, then unlocked the door and went in. As soon as he was alone his face changed, becoming serious and sad.
He took the elevator up to his floor, the whole ride gazing pensively down then unlocked his apartment door, walked in and headed right to the bedroom. His apartment was small and cheap, but tidy. He had obviously taken great pains to make it as nice as possible on what must have been very limited means. It was shabbily elegant, much like himself.
He walked over to his desk and sat dejectedly down, pouring himself a drink from a bottle that looked used to being there. He took a heavy swallow then pulled out a drawer and dumped out the contents. He felt around for a bit then pried off the false bottom of the drawer and set it aside. He reached in and pulled out his sketches from long ago. They had been painstakingly taped back together. He traced each design slowly with his fingers and the tears he had so determinedly held back as a boy began to flow in thick, mascara colored rivers down his face. The scene hazed out and Joshua backed breathlessly away.
“What are these . . . things?” he muttered, repulsed.
A soft, sinuous voice snaked across the room, hardly louder than a whisper, but perfectly clear.
“Why, my dear boy, they’re broken dreams. Mr. Charm does have such a lovely collection, don’t you think?”
Joshua whipped his head around to peer at the far side of the attic and there he saw the Secret Whisperer curl forth from the sly darkness that defiantly clung to the corners, despite the bright sky above.
She was hideous. A sagging, tortuously old and doughy face, impossibly white, caked with age that cobwebbed her face in delicate blue veins. She wore a voluminous black, taffeta gown, stiff and high necked. Her wispy hair was thinly dark and long, and her hands were narrow-fingered and as pale as her face. But it was her eyes that shocked him: entirely black except for a thin slit of pure white down the center. Her eyes were so intense they seemed to leap across the room at him.
“Come to me, my sweet pet,” she crooned. “I can smell your secrets. Tell them to me.”