She was just beginning to weigh the benefits of hiding in the bedroom closet versus jumping out the bedroom window, when she heard the sound of the attic steps at the end of the upstairs hall being pulled down out of the ceiling. Then she heard the unseen group ascending the attic steps and soon she heard them bumping directly over her head and coming to a halt. Then she heard nothing.
After five solid minutes of silence, Greta shut off the lamp next to her bed and got out from under her covers, standing up and shivering in her thin, orange pajamas. She padded quietly over to her bedroom door on bare feet and cracked it open, peering out into the dark hallway. It was empty. She opened the door the rest of the way and stepped into the hall. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed a trail of muddy footprints on the cream colored carpet, running all the way down the hall to the attic steps. By the number of prints, she guessed that at least six people had gone up into her attic. Even out in the hallway, with the rectangular opening to the attic at the end of the hall gaping and black, Greta still heard nothing.
She hurried up the hall to the top of the stairs and descended as quietly as she could, cringing at every creak. The footprints on the stairs were darker than the prints in the upstairs hallway and the prints in the front hall leading from the door were darker still, clumps of mud and puddles of water all over Greta’s hardwood floor. The rain had stopped, but a chilly, damp wind blew down the hall as Greta hurried to the little table by the open front door and fished through her purse for her cell phone. As far as Greta could tell, the front door was undamaged, so the group must have gotten a key somehow. Finding her phone at last, she ran out onto her front lawn, the long saturated grass ice cold on her feet, soaking the bottoms of her pajama pants. She was just about to call the police to report the invasion of her home when she turned back toward her house and looked up at the attic window.
It was standing open. As Greta watched, the dark figure of a man began to emerge from the window. Greta almost screamed but held it in, instead turning her head to avoid seeing the man fall. But when she heard no shout, no impact of the man’s body on the ground, she looked back and saw the figure standing in the air. The cloud cover had begun to dissipate and in the moonlight, Greta saw that the man really was standing on nothing at all. He took a step upward and another, climbing an invisible staircase into the sky. Further up and further out, Greta saw the man’s companions moving on ahead of him in a single file line through the air, black blotches with straight backs and swinging arms against the deep, silvery blue of the sky.
Greta flipped her phone shut, went back into the house, closed and locked the front door behind her, and followed the muddy footprints back down the front hall, up the stairs, and past her bedroom to the attic steps. The steps were made of untreated wood and she hoped she wouldn’t get splinters in her bare feet as she climbed up to the attic. It was only the second time she’d been in the attic since she’d moved into the house, the first being when she’d carried a few boxes of old clothes and college textbooks up the steps and left them there, a little cluster of useless possessions in the middle of the dusty floor. Now, other than those few boxes, the only thing Greta saw in the attic was a pile of muddy shoes just inside the open window, a dark, dripping heap in a puddle of moonlight. She walked over to the window, the floor creaking under her feet, and looked out into the sky for the shoes’ owners. They were moving fast, indistinct specks disappearing against the backdrop of the night sky. Greta put her hand out the window and moved it back and forth, feeling for the invisible staircase, but she felt nothing and she realized that whatever the group was walking on was not for everyone.
Greta felt used. Why hadn’t they asked if they could come through her house? She would have let them, particularly if there was something special about her location. She would have been happy to accommodate them as long as their purpose wasn’t malicious or sinister.
She slid the window closed, left the shoes where they were, climbed down the attic steps, and folded them back into the ceiling.
Later, after turning on all the lights in the house and drinking two cups of hot tea, Greta was on her hands and knees in the upstairs hallway trying hopelessly to scrub the stains out of the carpet when she heard a timid knock at the front door. She went downstairs to the door and looked through the peephole. A disheveled young woman in jeans and a dark windbreaker stood on Greta’s front porch, rocking from side to side with anxious energy.
Greta opened the door.
The young woman put her hand to her forehead and said, “Oh, thank God. Have they left yet?” She stepped forward and Greta moved out of her way, letting her into the front hall.
“You’re with the group?” asked Greta.
“They’re still here?” asked the woman. “They’re waiting for me?”
Greta shook her head. “No, they didn’t wait. They went out my attic window…” she trailed off, waving her hand vaguely over her head as if that explained it.
“Oh no,” said the woman. “Show me where. Please?”
“We can just follow the footprints,” said Greta, pointing to the messy trail on the floor. She led the woman upstairs to the attic steps and pulled them down out of the ceiling by the hanging cord. The woman clambered up ahead of Greta. By the time Greta followed her into the attic, the woman was standing by the pile of shoes and struggling with the latch on the window. She succeeded in opening it and waved her hand around outside, feeling for the staircase just as Greta had done.
“I think you’re too late,” said Greta. She watched sympathetically as the woman leaned forward with her forearms propped on the window sill and hung her head, crying softly. Greta walked over to the woman and rested her hand on her shoulder.
“I work at the video store,” said the woman, sniffling. “They made me stay late to reorganize the foreign films section. I told them I had a prior commitment but they wouldn’t listen!”
“Where were you supposed to go?” asked Greta, looking up at the solemn moon.
“I can’t pronounce the word right,” said the woman. “Everyone made fun of how I said it, but they weren’t being mean. Mr. Bullard spelled it for me, but that didn’t help. Everyone said how lovely it is there. It’s so great that some people stay and I was thinking that I might stay too. Why couldn’t they wait for me?”
Greta wanted to tell the woman that missing a trip to such a supposedly amazing place because she didn’t want to get in trouble at her job at the video store seemed incredibly foolish but she knew it would just upset her even more. “I know it’s not how you were hoping to spend the night,” said Greta, “but if you know any tricks for getting stains out of carpets, I could use some help cleaning up after your friends. I don’t know why they had to make such a mess.”
“They probably didn’t do it on purpose,” said the woman, sighing into her hands and then wiping tears off of her cheeks with the insides of her wrists. “They were probably really focused on the journey.”
“Well, that’s how it goes,” said Greta. “They go off on a magical journey and those of us who get passed by and ignored and left behind get to clean up their muddy footprints.”
The woman smiled at her. “I’ll help.” She stood up straight and smoothed her hair back behind her ears. “First,” she said, “I think we should get these filthy shoes out of your attic.” And one at a time, taking turns, the women pitched the shoes out of the attic window where they landed with wet, satisfying thumps on the lawn.