Chapter 1 – The Girl in the Attic
Dog woke me up. That was strange, because apart from when the odd rat snuck through the floorboards, I could kick him and he wouldn’t budge. Lazy bastard. But that day, I don’t know, he must have smelt change in the air – or the promise of vermin, at least – because he jammed his rough little nose in my face and ran it up and down my face, sandpapering my skin. Not exactly a glamourous morning routine, but I guess I hadn’t exfoliated in a while. Maybe he was trying to give me a hint.
When my eyes finally focused, I remembered where I was. That night I’d snuck up into a dusty attic not far from the fence. The downstairs was completely looted, of course. No food, nothing. Only one fat, decaying book under a couch that, when I brushed off the caked powder, said something something species something something Darwin. Must’ve been a smart guy, the book was pretty thick. I used it to start a fire in a small bin. Felt bad for Darwin, but it was cold, so I’m sure he would’ve understood.
Dog had been pretty useless all night and hadn’t sniffed anything edible out, although he did prove a decent explorer, and pawed out an old woolly jumper. It was green and thick, quite a find. On the front was a cartoon of a deer. I know that because mum told me once about them. They grew big sticks out of their heads and would fight with them, smacking into each other’s sticks until one just decided he couldn’t be bothered anymore. She saw one once on TV when she was a kid. I put on the jumper and looked at Dog, imagining him with big sticks growing out of his head. He seemed to read my mind, because he bowed down and buried his snout in his paws rebelliously. When the fire died down, I pulled him closer to warm him with my jumper, and me with his scratchy hair. I didn’t sleep much, between the itchy old wool and Dog’s scratchy hair.
Which meant I was even more annoyed with him when he decided to give me a free wake up call. Any other morning, I would’ve just push his muzzle away and rolled over. But so long with only Dog as my company, I’d come to understand his limited but effective inventory of emotion. That morning when I woke up Dog wasn’t in his default mood – hunger, with a hint of curiosity – with his eyes cheery and vacant. He was quiet, his mouth was closed. His head turned outward, to the small gap in the roof where the grey dawn sky was. Silent.
And then I heard it.
Some people think all screams sound the same. They’re wrong. It’s like when you’re a baby and your mum can tell what the different cries mean. Feed me. Burp me. I’ve crapped myself. Screams when you're all grown up are just the same, we just don’t like to think that because we’re adults. You can tell one from the other. I’ve heard screams that say different things. No. I’m done. Why. This scream, rattling through the patch in the roof, was a rare one. It said, help me, girl in the attic.
Dog had crouched down and flattened his body against the wooden boards, but like me, was edging ever so slowly over to the gap in the roof. I had to see who was screaming. More precisely, who was screaming at me. I pressed my back against the nearest wooden beam, and turned millimetre by millimetre towards the open space. When my body was turned, I edged my eyes just as slowly, and saw what was happening below.
Netters. Like it’d be anything else.
The girl they had looked, weirdly, just like me. She had black hair, knotted into one big ball, and wiry limbs that you’d think would snap like sticks of chalk if you never saw her fight. But she was fighting alright. The Netters, two of them, had her by the arms and feet and were dragging her out of the house next door. But she was writhing and kicking so her whole body swung between the two of them. She looked like a human hammock caught in a gusty wind.
Normally I wouldn’t have even looked that long. I’d seen Netters catch plenty of us kids out in the skirt. They hadn’t been out in a while, but then again, we were all getting better at skipping them. We didn’t take risks anymore, like working together or sharing spaces. They smelt us out. We learnt – well, the ones that were left – that solitude meant survival, and friendships never helped anyone. Occasionally when I’d scout out somewhere new to sleep, I’d catch a kid in one of the rooms. We all looked the same. The big possumy eyes, the tight, twitchy mouths. Almost like we were so hungry, we were eating our lips. Chewing them off.
This girl was no different. Sinewy, but surviving. But her eyes weren’t blank pools, waiting for the sight of food. They were dark and keen and they were looking straight at me. She didn’t call out. Not exactly. She just kept screaming, shrieking, but making sure the shrill pitched sound beat right through my head. She was screaming for help, but she knew I wouldn’t. She was gone. She knew it, I knew it. Bony body splayed on the attic floor, even Dog knew it.
They threw her into the boot and disappeared.
Dog was moving even before I was.
He was really on the ball that morning.