Where to begin? The day that they sent her secretly crying, crushed, into the top floor room, a place of fear and dark and dust? Or many months, actually two years, before, when she arrived, tired and afraid, not sure of her place, not sure what would happen next? She knew her place now, that was certain. Her place was up there, in that dusty old attic.
Probably best to start at the beginning. In the beginning, Sophy was just any other girl. Well, at least, she was just any other girl in that she was a girl. She had brown hair growing soft and straight from her rather large head. She had brown eyes, big and deep and watchful, eyes that could fix on someone unintentionally intensely, until the other person looked away. She was smaller than many girls her age, but solid, often quiet, sometimes loud with passion, always odd, outside, on the edges. This edgy, small girl had lived her life happily alone with her parents until The Day School Started. It had all gone downhill from there.
With her parents, Sophy Thorne could read. She could think. She could talk and ask questions and enjoy a colorful, beautiful life of the mind, just the three of them melding thoughts and ideas into an almost magical internal world. But classmates were a different story. Too old for the others around her, at least in that large head of hers. Too young in years and too young in emotion, not familiar with the ways of the other children. A girl in every way except the way that seemed to matter. Sophy tried, but she never quite understood why girls did what they did. Why did they, one day, talk about being friends, list you first on their friendship list, only the next day to brush you off coldly, announce to everyone that you were no longer on the list at all? Why? There was no way, Sophy knew, that she herself had changed so much in a single day.
But then one day came, one single day, in which everything changed. Everything. Forever. Her parents, on what was to be a quick trip to a favorite old bookstore a couple of hours away, her father, driving well and carefully as he always did. It wasn’t enough. Not enough to keep them from crossing paths with a truck coming into their lane, going the wrong way, going 70 miles per hour. The driver, the police said, exhausted and asleep behind the wheel. A truck taking away Sophy’s parents, permanently. Her companions in her life of the mind were gone.
What did she have left?
She had an aunt, she had an uncle, both of whom had graciously given up their small ranch home to move into the rambling old house no one had occupied since Sophy’s grandfather had died. There was just more space, her aunt and uncle said, and with Sophy to care for, they needed more space. Plus, the schools were good.
She had a cousin, a boy near her own age, the kind of boy who walked a razor’s edge of choices: He might end up good and kind, or he might end up unhappy and mean. It was hard to tell then, when the two of them were only young kids, which way it would go. His parents, Sophy’s aunt and uncle, Terrance and Trude Thorne, seemed like signposts pointing the way to Unhappy and Mean. They were well meaning, in their way, but ultimately self-absorbed and unintentionally unkind to this strange, odd girl they’d somehow inherited. And it was thanks to them that Sophy found herself moving up. They needed the tiny room she’d had for two years, needed it for...well, that had been unclear, but what was clear was that Sophy had to vacate and take herself and her meager belongings upstairs, to the top of the house, to the attic. She’d like having a little more privacy, they said, now that she was becoming a teenager.
The dust choked. The first time Sophy sat on the bed with its aged, flaking hand-made quilt, a little cloud of dust gathered around her and drifted up her nose, making her sneeze. Several times. Loudly. Her aunt had said they’d change the linens and set up a nice cozy nook, but that hadn’t happened yet. Sophy would look to it herself, probably. So, sneezing.
“Atchoo! Atchoo! ATCHOO!!”
With that last sneeze, Sophy heard something. A creak, then a scratching sound, then a rustle. “Oh, no,” she thought, putting a dusty hand to her mouth. “A rat?”
Sophy didn’t normally find rats that scary, but alone in the dusty, gloomy attic, suddenly a rat seemed like the scariest thing she could imagine. What if it came to her in the night, tried to chew off her toes?
Afraid to move, she sat, still and listening. But then another bolus of dust traversed her nasal passages, and suddenly, she needed to sneeze again. She wriggled her nose. She contorted her face. She pinched her nostrils. None of it helped.
That was the loudest one of all, and it brought on a commotion in the corner of the attic, a racket of scuffling, scratching, scraping that grew so loud that Sophy was about ready to leap out of her skin when a voice came from the gloom.
“Aaaaaaaaaagggggggh!!” Sophy screamed in reply. She leapt across the bed to the opposite side, huddling behind it, her back to the old paneling on the attic wall. As she cowered, she heard more scraping and footsteps scooting across the floor, as though the person or thing or whatever it was that owned the feet couldn’t lift them up very well.
“Wha...what...wh...who...who are you?” Sophy stammered. She was near tears with the fear, hugging the musty pillow at the head of the bed, just peeking her eyes around it. A quick glance sideways told her the door was too far away, that whatever this thing was was far closer than any exit.
And then, into a beam of sunlight slanting through the clouded attic window, there stepped a little old woman. A very little old woman. She stood no higher than Sophy’s waist and was clad in clothing that looked old in every way, as though it had been made many many years ago and worn as long. The skirts, which fell to the floor and covered the scuffling feet, glided through the attic dust, leaving a trail of smooth, gleaming wood floor behind them. Their faded blue, in spite of its age, did not look dusty but instead seemed clean and fresh.
Indeed, the old woman herself did not carry the dust of the attic but smiled a cheerful, fresh smile from underneath her faded tawny head covering, which was tied neatly under her hair at the back of her neck. She looked at Sophy with brown eyes that didn’t twinkle but instead gleamed with a warmth and compassion that Sophy hadn’t seen in anyone’s face for two years.
“Don’t be afraid,” the tiny old thing said to Sophy in a soft voice that sounded strangely young, almost childlike. “I am Glaydis, and I mean you no harm.”
Slowly, Sophy stood up from behind the bed, leaning on it so that its old joints creaked under her weight. She kept her hold on the pillow, hugging it to herself as she rose. She glanced toward the door again. Then, looking down on the old woman, standing in the slanting sunlight and smiling so kindly, Sophy suddenly felt huge and human and ungainly. In reality, she was still quite small, even small for her age (she’d be 13 next birthday), but still much larger than the little old lady.
“Wha...what are you doing here, in the attic?” Sophy managed to choke out, still fighting the dust.
Glaydis looked around her. “The attic?” she repeated. “The attic? My dear, this is no attic. This is the Sky Parlor.”
“The sky parlor?” Sophy repeated, not understanding.
“Yes,” Glaydis returned. “This is our home here. We all live here in the Sky Parlor. And you are welcome here, as well. We’re glad you’ve finally arrived.”
Sophy couldn’t say anything in return. She couldn’t say “thank you” or “how kind” or “I appreciate that” because all her brain could process at that moment was that the old lady had said “our” and “we all” and her mind had arrested on a single question. “Who are the ‘we’?”