What do you get when you combine a missing sister, an attic door that won’t close, a biohazard cleaning team, and a cameo from two blind tabby cats named Dr. No and Mr. Goldfinger? A new Laura van den Berg story, “Aftermath.” Originally published in the most recent print-only issue of Conjunctions, you can read it online this week at Lit Hub.
“Aftermath” opens with our main character, Genevieve, calling a cleaning service that sounds more like the murder-scene cleanup kind than the dusting-and-vacuuming kind. The receptionist asks Genevieve if there are any biohazards to be aware of (“blood, fecal matter, teargas,” she explains), but there are not. Genevieve just wants her house to have a good clean. She checks into a hotel for a couple nights while the cleaning is underway, and when she returns home, she finds that more than the gleam of the countertops has changed:
At first, her house looked the same, the counters and floors a little brighter from the cleaning, except the attic ceiling was open on the second floor. The steps had been unfolded, an invitation to climb . . .[The cleaning service] must have cleaned the attic and forgot to close it, Genevieve thought. That was the explanation that made the most sense. She folded up the stairs and tried to close the attic, but it wouldn’t budge. She bent down and grabbed the edges of the door and pulled. She wedged herself underneath the door, gritted her teeth, and pushed. Soon she was short of breath and her hands were burning. The door was stuck. Something was wrong with the hinges. She looked into the dark mouth of the attic and felt a gust of air, like something was breathing on her.
In this and so many of her stories (and in her novel, Find Me), Van den Berg weaves surrealism and realism together with a deft hand, making her stories occupy a place that is neither/nor, where the familiar becomes strange and the strange familiar. The thing that makes it work so successfully in “Aftermath” is the nonchalance the characters have towards the un-budging, irrevocably open attic. Genevieve complains to the cleaning service, and the cleaning service responds that they don’t do attics, especially not that attic. She calls a contractor, and he takes one look at the opening and says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s not a thing we can do about that.” These people aren’t going to mess with the attic, sure, but they’re not surprised by its existence. Everyone seems to know that closing the attic is hopeless except Genevieve.
It’s also never explained why the attic is so foreboding, why the door won’t close. Van den Berg leaves its significance up to interpretation. But you get the idea that it might have something to do with Genevieve’s sister, who has gone missing:
The truth was she couldn’t remember the last time she saw her sister. At the start of winter, her sister had come to stay with her. Genevieve had not seen or talked to her sister in months. One day she just showed up. This was a small house, without a guest room, so they shared a bed, like they did when they were children and scared of thunderstorms. They watched Late-Night TV and ate chocolate pudding. Her sister petted Genevieve’s hair and called her “Genie.” Sometimes her sister got sad. Sometimes Genevieve would hear her crying in the shower. This wasn’t such a surprise, though: Her sister had always been sad.
Van den Berg gives you enough to connect the dots, but leaves enough ambiguity to maintain the mystery. The attic door could be interpreted so many ways that it’s almost a kind of Rorschach. It could be Genevieve’s missing sister causing it to stay open, or the attic could be the reason she’s missing, or both, or neither. It could be supernatural, metaphysical, or metaphorical. It could just be a symbol of fear of the unknown. The exact nature of the attic, along with what happened to Genevieve’s sister, is unknowable, and that’s exactly the point. “Aftermath” is part ghost story, part grief narrative, part unsolved mystery, but mostly, it’s a story about the difficulty of not knowing, of living with that void of knowledge, carrying your unanswered questions with you every day as you grow older and older, steadily drifting towards the day when, finally, you might know.