The Heart in the Attic By Christopher S. Opacki
Max opened his eyes. The ceiling above his bed inhaled and exhaled. I’m seeing things. Just one scratch. Thoughts about the suicide that had happened years ago in his house before he purchased it was getting the better of him. He thought about killing himself, while his imagination ran wild. It’s just an old house, and it’s bound to creak and groan.
The next evening and the next bedtime came faster than he had hoped. Yet, he couldn’t wait to get a full night of sleep. He needed it.
Max stared at his ceiling for hours, starting at 2 am. Laziness and half-closed eyelids won him over and prevented him from rushing up into the attic with a broom and clobbering the mice busy with their housekeeping at an inappropriate hour. I’ll fix it tomorrow. He pulled out his phone and added a reminder to buy some mouse traps.
It’s Valentine’s Day.
He reminisced about having a girlfriend. Tess was an exceptional woman, but he fucked up bad. Last Valentine’s Day, he had forgotten—procrastinated—to order flowers and reserve a table at her favorite restaurant. He sped to the flower shop in his rattling car, but they were out of roses. He bought red carnations. She hated carnations. Fast food is the only restaurant with last-minute seating on Valentine’s Day. I should have done this earlier. Oops! Next girlfriend, I will not procrastinate. His therapist’s words echoed in his head. “Should-a, could-a, would-a. Stop that, Max!” she said every time he mumbled one of those awful words during a session.
She kicked him to the curb and never bothered with him again. Max tried to call her a few times, but greetings from a voicemail message aren’t the same as talking to the real person. He didn’t bother leaving a message.
He fell asleep at 4 am, after the ear-piercing pain ceased.
The next morning, Max ate his ritual morning bowl of cereal while his coffee brewed. He liked it dark, almost French-press-robust. On Saturdays, he slept well into the afternoon. But those mice needed to be dealt with ASAP.
He grabbed a few boxes of mousetraps and the poison that fit inside from the hardware store after a lecture with the store owner, who was a self-acclaimed expert in trapping mice. Cobwebs hung like Halloween ornaments throughout the attic. It had been ages since he had been in the attic. The cobwebs were furnishings. The basement was full of them too, and they guarded a crawl space he had never bothered exploring. Sticky tendrils hugged him when he walked down there to do laundry.
Max opened his boxes of traps and put on gloves before opening the pail of poison. Pulling on the rope attached to an entryway in the ceiling, a collapsible wooden ladder descended and stabilized on his carpeted hallway floor. A cool breeze rushed him, bringing with it a musty cotton-ball breath of air that forced a sneeze. Max almost dropped his mousetraps, and the bucket swung as he caught them in mid-air.
He climbed the ladder and flipped the light switch. Pulling himself up, he scanned for evidence that mice had been running rampant. Nothing. Six traps should be perfect. He loaded the traps with the green blocks of poison. He placed one behind the plastic storage boxes, one in each corner, and two where he heard the scratching.
He picked up a carved, wooden, heart-shaped box that sat on the floor. The artist had painted it red, and aging gave it a distressed look. A brass hinge connected the base and the lid and kept it shut. He flipped it open, plucked out a piece of paper from it. “This is my last Valentine with you,” said Max, reading from the note.
How did I miss this?
When Max moved into the attic, he stored plastic containers with clothing for each season. Climbing the ladder back down, he held the heart-shaped box in his hand and pressed his forearm against the wall to keep himself from falling.
He placed the wooden heart-shaped box on a table in the hallway and forgot about it. A scratch-free sleep would be amazing. The nighttime-mind-fucks are over.
Max woke up to the scratching noise again. This time, it wasn’t coming from the attic. It was coming from the hallway. He jumped out of bed wearing his white Fruit-of-the-Looms, muscles glistening from the moon shining through the window, and cursed. The scratching echoed through the hallway, and it seemed loud because it was nighttime, but it was faint. He bent his neck toward his shoulder, hoping that he would hear better, and crept up and down the hallway.
He shivered. Cold air drifted by him, and it felt like something pushed against him. A slight pressure prodding him forward. He looked behind him. Nothing. He looked in the other direction. Nothing. He continued to track the scratching, and he stopped in front of the heart-shaped box. He picked it up and opened it. The note, packed inside, watched him. It mocked him. No more scratching.
He put down the heart-shaped box. She stole it. A whisper rode another cool breeze through the hallway.
Max ran to his room and pulled a Glock 9mm pistol from his nightstand. He ran down the hallway and searched each room in the house with his pistol ready to fire.
She stole my heart.
“What the fuck? Come out! I’m armed!”
He continued his search and found nothing. The scratching started, and he ran back upstairs into the hallway and stood in front of the box. The noise came from inside or around it. He placed his hand on top and the scratching stopped.
It’s mine, something whispered.
Something shoved Max, and he fell to the floor. He grunted as he posted himself up with one arm and aimed his pistol down the hallway toward the wooden heart.
Max stretched his hand over his mouth with his fingers spread out. It’s trying to get the wooden heart-shaped box. He can’t. He’s dead. Max thought about the note and recalled the prior owner had killed himself in the basement. The police had found his decomposing body in the basement after his parents filed a missing person report. The house was 100k cheaper because someone died there. He didn’t care that someone had committed suicide in his house twenty years prior. It happened twenty years ago. Max didn’t believe in ghosts, but this was so real.
“I’ll help you get the heart! Just don’t push me!”
The scratching stopped.
The next morning, Max grabbed his house documents and parsed through them. It contained a history of the past owners and he found him—the ghost—the scratcher. “Pat Simmons. That’s him.” He picked up the wooden heart-shaped box, grabbed a shovel from the basement, then headed out to The Mountainview Cemetery to find Patrick’s grave.
The headstone was in good shape, and they had engraved a heart and a rose underneath his name and date of birth and death. He had a broken heart and soul. When dusk came and the shadows stretched across the cemetery, Max buried the wooden heart-shaped box in front of Patrick’s gravestone. The scratching subsided, and the ghost never bothered him during the witching hours ever again.