Chapter 1 from What's Upstairs?

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by Tim Burdick

“Time for bed,” his aunt croaked, peering from behind the towel hanging over the bedroom door window.

“Please? Can't I stay up a little longer?” Arthur asked the blurry face in the window glass.

“No. The house rules state: no going upstairs, no jumping off the bed, and no lights on after 9pm. Now go to sleep,” she said. The towel dropped back into place, shutting out the light from the living room.

Unable to read, Arthur sat huddled in the middle of the huge bed. His comic lay open and untouched. He'd start reading a page and then a flicker of movement caught his eyes. He'd look up. Nothing. Only that window. A small opening about the size of a head set at eye level on the wooden door. He wrapped his arms around himself in a tight hug, careful of his bandaged wrist. It's like I'm under observation. He sighed, tossing the comic book at his duffle bag next to the night stand.

Arthur shuffled his tiny frame across the wide bed to the edge. With his gangly arms, he brushed away a few spiders from his camp lamp, and turned out the light. “Great, who goes to bed this early during the summer?” he grumbled, throwing back the quilt and white sheet, raising a cloud of dust over his bed. Coughing, he changed into his pajamas, trying not to bump or scrape his bandaged left wrist. “No, I don't want to have nightmares about that.” he returned to bed and stuffed his hands under the covers. Lying there, he stared at the ceiling, waiting to fall asleep for some time. But, finally, he admitted to himself, It's too hot with the quilt, and kicked it off, still keeping his bandaged wrist under the sheet. The bed springs groaned with each toss and turn. Arthur thought, I'll never get to sleep.

A few minutes later, a flash light beam crept across his face. Why is she checking on me? Am I four? He frowned, curling up into a ball. Arthur imagined her in a bathrobe, her grumpy face almost pressed against the glass. Why did mom and dad leave me with her? After several seconds, the light faded away. The stairs creaked and the door slammed somewhere above him.

Just this morning, he had been on Route 60, passing the flat fields of Ohio. His parents were chatting in the front seat. When they passed the Cleveland exit, his mother turned around. “Arthur, we need to talk. You're not visiting Aunt Agathora for a week. You'll be staying with her for the whole summer. I know we said you could go to baseball camp last month, but your father and I talked and we think it is too hard this year. We think that you should rest. Maybe, next year.”

Smiling at him in the rearview mirror, his father agreed. “It's for the best. I have that two week training and then we're visiting my cousin. We'll join you in the middle of August.”

Arthur stared at the back of his mother's seat. No, you just want me somewhere out of the way. He picked at the bandages on his wrist, and his stomach throbbed. Before he knew it, they pulled into the white pebble drive at his aunt's house: its run down appearance with faded blue siding deepened his gloom. Aunt Agathora lives here? This place looks abandoned. Arthur gaped from the back of the car. The house windows were either extremely dirty, cracked, or both with paint peeling from the frame. Loose shingles dangled from the side as if they would fall at the slightest touch. Tangles of bushes hid the lower half of the house and the yard hadn´t been mowed in months with clumps of weeds and dandelions sporadically sprouting from the thick grass.

“Look at the place. I can still see holes in the roof. What´s with the tarp? I thought she would have finished with the repairs by now. Wasn´t Lester supposed to be helping her?” his dad muttered to his mother.

“I know. It has been a year since Uncle Nate´s death. I was hoping she would have made some progress by now.” his mother said. The car pulled to a stop and seconds later, his aunt stood in the door way unlocking the back screen. “Arthur, come here and let me get a look at you.” Aunt Agathora called, beckoning to him up the path. In a gray pant suit, her stocky frame filled the doorway. “Your mother said you had an accident. Could you show it to me?” she bent over, pointing to his bandaged wrist.

“No, please Aunt Agathora, the doctor said, it should stay covered.” Arthur held his arm close to his chest with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Heat rose up in his cheeks and he had the urge to run back and lock himself in the car.

“Okay, I won´t touch your arm.” she said, stepping back into the door way´s shadows.

“Arthur, just remember to remove the bandage before showering.” his mother reminded him, glancing between her son and sister.

“Come on in, but take your shoes off first.” his aunt said, standing on the back porch.

Arthur looked up at her. “Yes, Aunt Agathora.” he slipped off his shoes on the porch mat and stepped inside. She looks old.

“It´s been years since I last saw you and now, you've become a regular bag of sticks. But, a little exercise will change that.” Aunt Agathora cupped his whole mousey face in her hands, slowly turning his head side to side, comparing the color in his cheeks. Then, satisfied, she patted his head. Arthur flinched slightly as if he had just been touched by rough bark. I feel like I'm being inspected.

“Your room is the empty one next to the living room. Go straight back. Turn right at the first magazine pile and another right at the cracked window,” she snapped; her pepper-colored hair hung in tight curls like a helmet on her head. “If you need anything, first right hand door next to the table is the bathroom, and the left hand door next to the china cabinet is the kitchen.”

Arthur scurried past her into the dining room, rattling the glasses on the table.

“Watch it. Those are delicate,” his aunt said over her shoulder, talking with Arthur's father.

“Sorry,” he muttered, adjusting the duffle bag's shoulder strap. Where am I? The dining and living rooms weren't separated but rather one long zig-zag with old furniture and a coat stand. Arthur maneuvered his heavy bag past the black wooden table, and the china cabinet. He stepped into a more open area, and there stood a short end table full of magazines almost taller than him. Okay. He turned right. Directly in front of him there was a cracked window between a desk with an old rotary phone and an opened door. He squeezed past the stuffed chairs and sofa, trying not to upset the teetering piles of mail balancing on them. He entered a small room with a bed which filled most of the space, threw his bag on the floor, staying there and refusing to say goodbye to his folks.

Bam! Bam! “What? Who?” Arthur awoke, and sat up in bed, covered in sweat with his hair clinging to his forehead. His heart raced. What's that noise? He spied the clock: midnight.

Somewhere upstairs his aunt stomped around, shouting. What is she doing this late? Arthur threw back the sheet and carefully made his way around the huge bed to the door.

He hesitated for several minutes, waiting for his aunt to come down the stairs. But the house was silent. He eased the door open and crept out to the desk. The street lights barely lit the living room through the cracked window. Arthur peered around. Just ahead of him, a dust covered window let in more faint light and it illuminated the downstairs. From this dim light, Arthur could make out a rather bare front room except for stacks of books piled along the wall and an open hall door with stairs leading to the second floor.

Another loud crash boomed above.

What was that? Arthur rushed across the room, and reached the bottom of the stairs. Should I check on her? Placing his hand on the scratched banister, he climbed the first few steps. Without warning, the door opened from the top of the stairs, and the glaring hall light shone on Arthur. He froze, squinting at the looming shadowy silhouette of his aunt.

“What-are-you-doing-out-of-bed?” she asked in a stern voice, her face blacked out by the hall light behind her.

“Are you okay?” he stammered, staring at her dark form. Something looks weird. His aunt´s left arm dangled loosely at her side almost touching her KNEE. “I thought, I heard something.” he swallowed slowly, unable to speak. How did her arm get so long ?

Ignoring his comment, Aunt Agathora growled, “Now, what did the rules state?”

Arthur said, “ I should be in bed---” the word died in his throat as he stared at his aunt´s left arm. It hasn´t grown. She´s holding a human arm in her hand. He took a step back down the stairs. “Okay, I´m going back to bed. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Arthur, and no more wandering, please, or I'll be very angry with you.” his aunt said and he scurried to his bedroom, closing the door.

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