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The Attic by Maxine Flam

A telegram arrived stating my cousin, Virginia, was dead. Be on the 8:00 p.m. train to Wichita. Marshall Adams would meet me. That was it. No more information.

During the six-hour trip, I wondered what happened. We weren’t particularly close, but she was my only living relative. My wife died a year ago in the flu epidemic of 1918. My son perished twenty years ago on the USS Maine during the Spanish American War. After Uncle Wilfred died five years ago, I wrote to her, but as more time went on, Virginia became extremely distant, until six months ago.

Virginia was a homely girl. She wore thick glasses, had a large hook nose, and crooked teeth. She was taller than the average man which caused her to feel awkward around new people. Her father tried to shield her from the mean comments of the townspeople, but she knew she was far from pretty.

Her father was wealthy and upon his death, he made sure that she would never have to worry about money for the rest of her life. The last time I saw her was at my uncle’s funeral. The house was just as beautiful as I remembered. The inside was decorated with expensive oil paintings, Persian rugs, ceramic statues purchased from merchants throughout Europe and the Middle East, solid redwood floors, curtains, and bedspreads made of the finest silk from China.

The house servant, Pierre, stayed on. Virginia needed someone to make sure she ate, slept, and bathed.

Six months ago, I received a letter from Virginia which stated how excited she was that she had met a man named Edward while shopping at the General Store, and he asked her for tea. She agreed to go and they had a lovely time. I was happy for her but at the same time suspicious. Was he interested in my cousin or her money? What kind of man was he? What did he do for a living? I didn’t want to sound cruel, but what did he see in Virginia, a matronly middle-aged woman? I wrote Virginia hoping she would confide in me, but she said nothing except that Edward was passing through and when he saw her, he decided to stay. I suspected that Edward was lying, but I knew Pierre was there and he would write me if he became suspicious, so I tried not to be concerned. Pierre wrote that Virginia saw Edward twice a week, once at the house and once in town. There was nothing out of the ordinary to report.

I wanted to visit, but I was sure Virginia would think I didn’t trust her judgment and that I thought Edward was trying to steal her money. So I decided to monitor the situation from afar.

Pierre wrote that he was taking his annual holiday in France. He would be away for two months. I should have gone then, but he assured me that Virginia was doing well and the Marshall would look in on her. She promised to eat in town. A carriage would take her to and fro every day. Again, I decided not to visit.

When Pierre returned, he found Virginia sitting in the big brown stuffed chair by the fireplace reading. A few statues were missing, but all seemed in order except Edward no longer visited and when asked, Virginia changed the subject. Pierre’s letter again revealed nothing out of the ordinary. I felt relief that Edward was gone. It was something I couldn’t explain, but even though Virginia was alone again, I believed it was better for her and better for Edward.

The train pulled into Wichita at 2 a.m. Marshall Adams was in a carriage waiting as promised. As I stepped into the buggy, Marshall Adams said, “Make yourself comfortable. It’s a thirty-minute ride to your cousin’s house from the train station. We’ll go to the house first and then to the hotel. They are holding your room and the kitchen will be open for you to get something to eat whenever we arrive.”

“Why not stay at the house?” I asked, wondering why he would want me to stay at the hotel when the house had extra bedrooms and only Pierre was living there.

“I don’t think you will want to stay there after I tell you what happened.”

That remark shook me to the core. I presumed Virginia had a heart attack or something, but now my imagination was running amok with frightful thoughts that she had met with foul play.

We arrived at the house. Marshall Adams went first and took the kerosene lamp from the porch and lit it. The light was dim but something didn’t seem right. We walked up the front steps. As we moved closer, I saw the house was in disrepair: paint peeling, a cracked front window, and porch boards missing. It was nothing like I remembered. As I entered, I saw numerous statues missing; the Persian rugs were threadbare. Such a grand manor was reduced to nothing more than a pauper’s shack.

“What happened?” I asked bewildered.

“After your uncle died, Virginia went into seclusion. She struggled for years with loneliness. The only company she had was Pierre. Then Edward came on the scene. For a while there, I thought she was going to clean up the old place and make it the way it was. But it wasn’t to be.” Marshall Adams shook his head and sighed.

“What happened between Edward and Virginia?” I asked, wanting to know but not wanting to know.

“While Pierre was out of town, Virginia and Edward had a terrible fight. Not just screaming and yelling but throwing things. The neighbor across the street heard it. By the time he came into town to get me and we rode back, it was over. Edward was gone. Virginia was in shock. She wouldn’t eat or sleep. She sat in the brown chair by the fireplace. Doc came out and took her to his office to try and get her to talk. When that didn’t work, he sent her to live with Mrs. Goddard for a couple of weeks. While Virginia was away, a putrid odor emanated from the house. I thought it was coming from the crawlspace. The blacksmith and I checked it out but we found nothing. I instructed the blacksmith to spread lye all around the house. The horrible smell continued, finally dissipating after a few weeks.

“Virginia began to act like her old self so Doc said she could return home. I checked on her daily and indeed, she was back to her normal self. She bathed, put on her Sunday best, and ordered a carriage to take her into town to eat and have tea. She did this every day until Pierre returned. Pierre had only been home a week when they went to town to shop. Virginia bought a beautiful needlepoint canvas and some floss to make a new wall hanging, then went up to the attic to retrieve the needlepoint stretcher. She climbed up the steps, opened the attic door, and never came down. After an hour, Pierre went to check on her. He opened the attic door and found Virginia had hung herself.”

“Oh my God! Why?” I exclaimed in horror.

“It turns out that Edward never left the house. During the fight, she must have hit him in the head with one of the statues and killed him. Not knowing what to do, she dragged his body to the attic and left it there, hence the horrible smell. She must have forgotten she did it. Doc says there’s some medical term for it. I think he called it “Hysterical Amnesia.” It is brought on by a terrible experience and the mind suppresses the memory like it never happened. As time passed, Virginia went about her life like Edward never existed. When she entered the attic, she saw what she had done to Edward and her memory came back. She couldn’t live with the guilt so she hung herself."

Marshall Adams put his hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said.

“I’m sorry too,” I replied, as I walked over to sit in the big brown chair by the fireplace.

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