When William stepped into the attic, he didn’t see her at first. He moved slowly into the open space filled with old sofas and torn chaises, mismatched headboards and footboards, trunks and empty picture frames and rusted dress forms. The ceiling soared impossibly high above him. Hanging from the rafters were thin veils of some sheer material. They waved in the draft from the recessed windows like a parade of ghosts. And she sat behind one such veil, humming softly, her legs tucked neatly beneath her, hair loose and falling all around her naked body. William froze when he saw her. Her face was turned so all he saw was her profile, and for a moment he thought maybe she hadn’t noticed him. He considered retracing his steps when she suddenly extended an arm, her fingers curling into her palm, beckoning him forward. He still didn’t move. She appeared sixteen or seventeen, but to William she was a full-grown woman. When he remained where he was, she lowered her hand and finally looked at him. His breath caught when she smiled.
“William, are you shy?”
William felt his face grow hot. He glanced around uncertainly. “How do you know my name?” He asked, finally breaking the silence. “Who are you?”
She only laughed. She stood up slowly, her hair falling away from her like a parting curtain. Briefly, William stared at her nude body. Then, a deep blush colored his cheeks and he turned his eyes away. Again, she laughed and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“You’re naked,” he said, his voice very high and tight.
She glanced down at herself, untroubled. “Is that wrong?” she asked. “Does it bother you?”
William shrugged, his eyes still averted.
“Well then, come cover me,” she said.
This time, he looked directly into her eyes. He saw that her shoulders were smooth and flawless. He would not allow himself to look below her shoulders to the secrets that lay below, the secrets he’d only seen in confiscated magazines from one of his friend’s father’s drawers. He blinked many times, wondering if this wasn’t some sort of dream.
Glancing around, he decided to offer her one of the gossamer hangings. There was one to his right, the color, once perhaps vibrant, now faded to a stale yellow. Reaching up, he was unable to grab hold of the material. He jumped a number of times but his attempts were in vain. He stubbornly jumped higher, willing his hands to close on the veil, feeling her eyes on him the whole time.
“Here,” she said, and he turned to see her reach up and pull a rose-colored veil easily into her hands. To his surprise, she held it out to him, waiting patiently. Did she really intend for him to cover her with it?
His face was perspiring in the afternoon heat. He swallowed and walked to her slowly. The closer he got, the faster his heart raced. When she handed him the material, he was only inches from her. He held it awkwardly in his hands, not sure what to do next. She turned her back to him and pulled her hair from her shoulder. He noticed a small diamond-shaped red mark on her shoulder. “Well?” She asked, glancing back at him. He leaned forward and draped the material over her like a cloak. His hands barely brushed her, but the excitement in him left him breathless.
“William, I’m so glad you’ve come,” she said, turning back to him with a bright smile. The darkness of her hair against the rose of the veil had a strong effect on William. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“How do you know my name?” he asked again.
Her eyebrows drew together as if she were seriously contemplating his question. “When you got close enough to the house, I saw you,” she said simply. “I was able to tell who you were.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Do we know each other?”
“I know you,” she said.
“I just told you.”
He fell silent, not understanding a word she’d said. “Do you live here?” he asked finally.
She nodded. “Do you like it?” She asked, but before he could answer, she ran to a trunk of cracked leather and lifted the lid. As he watched, she withdrew a small photograph. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “I’ve made the room to look like this picture.”
William stared at the image in the photograph. It was taken on old film so that the sepia-toned image was faded in the corners. But the furniture in the picture was arranged in the same haphazard manner as the furniture in the attic . . . a sofa here, a chair there. William suddenly realized the furniture looked exactly the same. He turned the photograph over in his hands and saw a smudged date stamped on the back, barely decipherable. William guessed it read 1901.
The girl took the photograph from his hands and pressed it to her chest. “I think I did a very good job, don’t you? It’s such a pretty room, this,” she said, waving the photograph. “But of course, I’ve never seen any other room before.”
“Really?” William asked, watching as she went back to the trunk.
She nodded. “Oh, I have plenty of pictures in here,” she said as she knelt, her arms lost in the depths of the chest. “And so many other treasures in all of these other chests.” She pulled out another article, a book with a blank cover. Opening it, she held out the inside of the cover and William noticed it was embossed with a thin floral paper. “See this pattern?” She asked. “I love it.” William stared at the design of the paper, the pattern drained of color. “The pattern . . . they’re flowers, aren’t they?” she asked, tracing a stem with her finger. William nodded.
“I don’t know how I know this,” she said, staring at him. “I’ve never actually seen a flower. But I know everything about this room, everything about each article in it. The furnishings, the books, they’re inherently mine. And this is where I’m supposed to be, with all of my belongings.”
William didn’t know what “inherently” meant, but he didn’t question her. Instead, he watched as a change came over her face, and she pranced away from him again to another chest. She withdrew a long gown of white lace. It looked like an old wedding dress.
“I don’t understand,” she said, holding it to her body. “Am I supposed to wear this like you wear garments on your body?”
“You mean you don’t know you’re supposed to wear clothes?”
“I never suspected,” she admitted. She took his hand. “Look,” she said as she led him to a far corner across the floor. Leaning against the wall were a dozen dusty frames. She turned one around so William could see the painting on the canvas. There was a slender woman standing beside a tree, holding an apple to a man stretched on the ground. A snake was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders, its slithering tongue close to her ear as if whispering to her. Both man and woman were nude, their bodies represented in perfect anatomical detail. William knew right away they were Adam and Eve.
“See?” she said. “They’re not wearing clothes. Nor are these people,” she said as she showed him another picture depicting Adam reaching out for God’s hand in Michelangelo’s Creation. “If these people are not wearing clothes, why should I?” she asked.
“These are pictures, not photographs,” William told her. “They’re not real.”
“What do you mean?” she asked him, her eyebrows knitting together almost comically.
“An artist painted them,” he explained. “No one knows what Adam and Eve really looked like.”
“Adam and Eve? Are those their names?”
“Well, how can people who are not real have names?”
William didn’t know how to respond. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “they were supposed to have lived once, but this isn’t really them in the picture. They are like people out of a storybook.”
“I’m confused,” she said, studying the picture closely. “Why would anyone want to cover the body? It doesn’t make sense. Don’t you get tangled up?”
“No,” William said, laughing. “You really have never worn clothes?”
She shook her head.
“Come on,” he said. “I don’t believe you. This is a joke.” And suddenly the strangeness of the whole situation struck him.
“I’m serious,” she insisted.
“And you’ve never been out of this attic?”
She shook her head again.
“Why?” he asked. This question seemed to confuse her further. Instead of answering, she lifted the picture and carried it with her to a neglected davenport standing against the far wall. She sat against a dusty red cushion, absently toying with the faded gold fringe as she silently stared at the picture. He walked to her side slowly.
“What do flowers smell like?” she asked, looking up into his eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sweet.”
“Mmm . . .” she murmured, closing her eyes and rolling her head against the back of the davenport. “What I wouldn’t give to hold a real flower in my hand and smell the flower’s fragrance.”
William didn’t say anything.
“There’s so much I don’t know, William. Can you help me?”
This request took him by surprise. For a moment, he felt a chill pass over him. Though he couldn’t explain it, there was something ominous about her question and the way she was looking at him so intently. “How?” he asked softly.
It began to thunder. For the first time, he looked out one of the dormer windows and saw that the sky had grown dark and heavy with another shower. He knew he had to return home soon.
“The next time you come,” she said breathlessly, leaning forward to take his hand, “you’ll bring me flowers.”
“That’s what you want?” he asked.
“Yes. A whole bouquet of them! I’ll hold them in my arms and just breathe and breathe!”
He nodded as he backed toward the door.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to come again,” he warned.
“It will be soon though, won’t it?” she asked. Her voice was so desperate he nodded to reassure her. At the stairs, he turned to look at her again. She was gazing down at the picture, his presence forgotten. As he stared at her, a thought came to him. “Are you a ghost?” he whispered.
She raised her head and smiled. “Not exactly.”
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.