The walls in this house are thin. I hear every footstep, every word, every rage-filled fight with crystal clarity. At 6:00, I hear Keith’s alarm go off. Five minutes later I hear him stumble out of bed and into the shower. At 6:30, I hear the sound of Karen knocking on Kim’s door and the sound of Kim chucking a pillow at her. At 6:45, I hear the front door opening as Keith leaves for work. At 7:15, I hear Karen wake Kevin up. Five minutes later I hear the sound of a sizzling griddle as she makes breakfast for her children. At 7:45 I hear Kim leave the house, dragging her younger brother with her. Five minutes later, I hear Karen pouring herself a cup of coffee. At 8:05 Karen finally leaves. Five minutes later, at 8:10 AM, I finally descend from the attic.
I open the refrigerator door and pull out a Tupperware container full of pasta, leftovers from the previous night. I only take a few bites, small enough that no one will notice that I’ve touched anything. Karen has left half a pot of coffee sitting on the counter; I finish it off. As I sip my lukewarm coffee, I make my way to the living room and turn on the TV.
The morning news is playing some sensationalist story about a string of recent break-ins. I roll my eyes and flip through the channels, looking for something interesting to watch. After finding nothing but reruns and game shows, I open up the DVR recordings.
I pop on a new episode of a sitcom I like, one about a happy family that Keith recorded the previous night. While I watch it, I check the recording schedule, making sure that my shows are set to tape. I notice that the Karen forgot to tape this afternoon’s episode of one of her soap operas.
I imagine the fight that’ll break out when Karen comes home and realizes that her stories weren’t taped. Presumably, she’ll accuse Keith of deleting them for the sole purpose of angering her and refuse to acknowledge the possibility that she made a mistake. Keith will bring up the fact that he’s had a hard day at work, which will only make Karen angrier. Kevin will try to drown out the fight by watching TV and Kim will storm out of the house.
I set the soap opera to record and pat myself on the back for a job well done. I can’t imagine how these people got by before I started living here. I’m the glue that holds this family together. My job is thankless, primarily because the Brattons don’t know I exist.
I’ve been living in the Bratton family’s attic for nine months now. Admittedly, hiding in the attic of a suburban middle-class family was never the plan. My stepfather kicked me out and I didn’t have anywhere to stay, so I started squatting in an unsold house. After three days of squatting, a new family moved in without any warning.
I probably should have run away. But, I knew finding a new squatting location would be a hassle, so I just started hiding in the attic. When the Brattons are all gone, I sneak down to grab food from their fridge. When they come back, I return to my hiding place. It was hard, at first, avoiding detection. I almost got caught a dozen times. But, before long, I managed to learn the family’s schedules. Nowadays the odds of me getting caught are minuscule.
My hearing has gotten pretty good over the past few months, so I am able to hear the unmistakable sound of a door opening at 8:30. This surprises me, because I know for a fact that no one should be home until 3:45. As soon as the door opens I dash to the pantry; it would take too long to return to the attic.
I hear the sound of footsteps. Judging by their sound, they belong to Kim. I realize that she must be skipping school. I hear, through the thin door of the pantry, Kim walk to the living room. Sneaking past her to return to the attic would be risky. If she doesn’t move until her family comes home, I’ll definitely get caught, though. I reach into my pocket and grab my cell phone. I text Karen, informing her of her daughter’s truancy. I smile when the Read tag appears beneath my message. I wait for Karen to come storming home.
I’ve learned a lot about the Brattons since I started living with them. Karen and Keith were high school sweethearts, him the local high school’s star quarterback and her the head of the cheer squad. I honestly think that the two of them would have gone their separate ways if it wasn’t for an unplanned pregnancy. Nine months and one shotgun wedding later, Keith and Karen came home with a baby girl named Kim.
If Karen’s weekly phone calls to her sister are to be believed, Kim used to be a sweet kid. But, with high school came new problems. One day Kim came home with black hair, piercings, and a new foul attitude. Keith and Karen came to the conclusion that they were the only parents in the history of mankind to have a rebellious teenager and responded by doubling down on punishments in an attempt to “fix” their daughter, something that has only made her rebel more.
Karen rips open the front door and marches into the living room. “What’s up, mom?” Kim says.
“Why aren’t you at school?” Karen asks.
“Didn’t feel like going,” Kim replies.
Karen sighs. “Kim, you need to go to school,” she says. “Otherwise, you won’t be able-”
“I won’t be able to get into college and then I won’t be able to get a good job and I’ll have to marry a loser,” Kim interjects. “I’ve heard the speech before, mom.”
“Then why do you keep doing things like this?”
“I had to leave my class to come and get you, you know.”
“That was a dumb decision.”
I hear the sound of a struggle, presumably created by Karen grabbing Kim by the ear and dragging her to the front door. “How’d you even find out I skipped school?” Kim asks.
“You principal texted me,” Karen replies.
I chuckle from the darkened pantry. I inputted my number into Karen’s phone under the principal’s name two months prior, knowing that a situation like this might occur. After making sure that Karen and Kim are gone, I return to the living room to watch TV.
At 3:00, I grab some snacks from the cupboard and return to the attic. At 3:45, right on schedule, I hear Karen’s car pull into the driveway.
I hear Kevin dash for his bedroom as soon as Karen opens the front door. “No video games until you’re done with your homework!” Karen shouts.
A few minutes later I hear the sound of Kevin turning on a game console. I don’t know if Karen doesn’t know or is just too busy to care. If I were to guess, I would say that she’s too busy working on her classwork to yell at her son. Fortunately, I don’t have to guess.
I grab a small tablet sitting atop a pile of boxes and turn it on. Camera feeds showing various rooms spread throughout the house appear on the screen. The feed from the kitchen shows Karen surrounded by a pile of books, jotting down notes in a notebook. The feed from Kevin’s room shows him sitting on a beanbag chair, blasting the heads off an army of zombies. There isn’t a feed from the attic; if there were, it would show me lazily lying on the old couch I claimed as my bed.
The security system was already installed when the Brattons moved in. The realtor neglected to tell them about the countless cameras spread throughout the house, designed to help stop an intruder. Ironically, nothing has contributed to my continued residence in this house more.
When I’m up in my attic, I do a variety of things to keep myself busy. I read, I browse the internet, I play games on my phone. But, the main thing I do is observe the Brattons over the cameras. At first, I did this so I could learn their schedules and figure out how to stay hidden. Over time, I started watching them for my own enjoyment. The Brattons are better than any soap opera. Their fights, their wants, their struggles, all of these things feature an authenticity television could never reproduce.
I don’t pay for the food, shelter, and entertainment I take from these people, but I do make it up with the things I do. I provide this family with something that money could never buy: stability. When I first met the Bratton’s, Keith and Karen’s marriage was hanging on by a thread. I knew that, if the two of them were to split up, they might leave this house and sell it to more observant residents. So I took it upon myself to keep the two of them together.
The main thing I do is clean up the minor sources of stress spread around the house. I make sure Keith’s work clothes are clean, I take out the trash when it gets too full, I make sure the toilet seat is down, I write things on the grocery list when we run out, that kind of thing.
I never do too much, because that would reveal my existence. Just enough to make sure Keith and Karen are happy. Occasionally, I do something big, like sending Karen flowers using Keith’s credit card or hiding tickets to a concert in the family’s mailbox. I honestly think that, if it wasn’t for me, Keith and Karen would have broken up months ago.
At 5:30, Karen moves her books from the table to the living room. She isn’t done studying, but needs to start on dinner if she’s going to have it done by the time Keith arrives at home. She pulls up a recipe on her phone and beings cooking fish.
I don’t think Karen ever wanted to be a housewife. She mentioned once, while talking to her sister on the phone, that she wanted to be a doctor when she was a kid. She’s never mentioned what changed, but I’m guessing that she put those dreams on hold when Kim came along.
She’s started taking nursing classes recently, a decision that has led to no shortage of stress in the Bratton family. No one has been impacted by this stress more than Karen herself, who has struggled to balance her studies and her family.
At 6:30, Keith comes home from work. He trudges through the front door and collapses onto the sofa. “How was your day?” Karen asks, seemingly oblivious.
“Tiring,” Keith replies.
Keith spends eleven hours each day in a cubicle. Since Karen started going back to school, things have been lean around the Bratton household. Keith volunteered to pick up extra responsibilities at work to help pad his salary, something he has regretted more and more with each passing moment.
Judging by the framed newspaper articles that hang in his study, Keith was a damn good football player in his youth, one good enough to get quite a few scholarships. He never accepted them, though. I’m not sure why.
“Keith, we need to talk about our daughter,” Karen says.
“What did she do this time?” Keith asks, eyes closed.
“She skipped school!”
Karen scowls at Keith. “I can’t believe that you aren’t taking this seriously,” she says.
“Karen, she’s sixteen,” Keith says, rubbing his temples. “She’s going to make mistakes.”
“Skipping school is more than a mistake, Keith.”
“Fine, I’ll go talk to her,” Keith says while getting off the sofa.
“She isn’t here right now,” Karen says, “I drug her back to school but she hasn’t come back yet.”
Keith sighs. “Did you try calling her phone?” he asks.
“No Keith, I didn’t try calling my missing daughter,” Karen snaps. “Of course I tried calling her. She didn’t pick up.”
“Maybe that means she needs space.”
“She could be at the bottom of a ditch for all we know!”
Karen is proven wrong ten seconds later, when Kim walks through the front door. “Where on earth have you been for the past three hours?” Karen asks.
“Out,” Kim replies.
Keith chuckles and Karen shoots him an angry look. “I was hanging out with friends, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Kim says.
“I was worried,” Karen says. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“It died,” Kim says.
“Bullshit,” Karen says.
“Easy,” Keith says as he pushes Karen and Kim apart. “Let’s all calm down.”
“I am perfectly calm, Keith,” Karen says. “I am just sick and tired of the fact that my daughter doesn’t respect me.”
“Okay,” Kim says while rolling her eyes.
Around this time, Kevin wanders downstairs, drawn by the fighting. He notices something that the others haven’t. “Mom?” he says.
“What is it, honey?” Karen asks, temporarily shifting her attention away from Kim.
“I smell smoke,” Kevin says.
Karen curses before running into the kitchen, ripping open the oven, and grabbing a glass pan containing charred fish with her bare hands. She screams and Keith runs over to her. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“I feel fucking phenomenal, Keith,” Karen says.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“No,” Karen says, as blunt as a boulder.
She reaches into a drawer, grabs a pair of oven mitts, and picks the pan full of burnt fish off the floor. “I have had a long day and would like nothing more than to have a nice meal with my family,” she says.
The Brattons eat the burnt fish in silence. Up in the attic, I munch on a bag of chips, enthralled by the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Kevin doesn’t touch his food. “What’s wrong, honey?” Karen asks.
“I don’t like fish,” he replies.
“It’s what we’re having for dinner tonight,” Karen says.
“It’s burnt,” Kim says.
“Maybe it would be better if I was able to focus on making dinner instead of worrying about you,” Karen snaps.
The doorbell rings and Keith answers it. A pimply pizza delivery boy stands on the front porch, holding a large stack of pies. “Pizza delivery for Keith Bratton,” he says.
“We didn’t order any pizza,” Karen says as she walks over to the door.
“Is this 432 East Meadow Street?” the pizza boy asks.
“Yes,” Keith replies. “And I’m Keith Bratton.”
“I have a delivery for you,” the pizza boy says.
“We didn’t order any pizza,” Karen says as she slams the door in the pizza boy’s face.
To be fair, Karen is right that she didn’t order any pizza. I did, hoping to stop the eventual fight over dinner by replacing the burnt fish with fresh pizza. “What did you do that for?” Keith asks.
“We didn’t order pizza,” Karen replies.
“I know, but we could have just paid for the pizza and ate it for dinner.”
“I worked really hard on dinner and we are going to eat it as a family.”
Karen walks back to her chair. “So, how was school? she asks.”
“Good,” Kevin replies.
“Did anything interesting happen?”
“My teacher talked to me about football tryouts.”
“Football tryouts?” Keith asks, suddenly interested.
“The answer is no,” Karen says.
“Now, let’s not be rash,” Keith interjects.
“I said no,” Karen says. “Football is dangerous and I don’t want my son getting involved.”
“Karen, it’s just flag football,” Keith says. “He’ll be fine.”
“I said no, Keith,” Karen says. “That’s final.”
Kevin gets out of his chair and storms off to his room. “Nice going mom, you made another child hate you,” Kim says before following her brother.
Kevin is the youngest of the Brattons, born a short seven years ago. As much as I hate to say it, I think Keith and Karen decided to have him to rekindle their long-dead marriage. This plan failed as a second child only added to their stress.
I think Kevin would have it a lot worse if I wasn’t around to keep his parents happy. I’ve seen children who grow up in broken homes and the problems they face. I’ve been keeping Keith and Karen together for Kevin’s sake as much as my own.
After dinner, Keith brings his laptop to the table and starts typing away. Karen scrubs away at the pan, rubbing off the charred fish and dumping it into the sink. “How was dinner?” she asks.
“It was fine,” Keith says.
It’s a lie, of course, and a poor one at that. Karen can easily see through her husband’s deception, but chooses to play along. “Just fine?” she asks.
Keith sighs. “Can we do this some other time?” he says. “I’m drowning in work right now.”
“You hated it, didn’t you?”
“I said it was fine, dammit. Why does it always have to be mind games with you?”
Karen leaves the pan to soak and begins cleaning one of the plates. “I’m just trying to make conversations, she says. “How was work?”
“Busy,” Keith says while typing on his computer.
“You know, I’d appreciate it if you put the laptop away while we’re talking.”
“Well, dear, I’d appreciate it if you acknowledged that my job pays for the roof over your head.”
“Here we go again,” Karen says, bitterness flowing through her words.
“You act like you’re the only one who works hard in this family!” Karen shouts.
The plate slips from her fingers and falls to the ground, shattering. She reaches down to pick it up and slices open her finger. “Are you okay?” Keith asks.
“I’m fine,” Karen says as blood drips from her hand.
On my screen, I notice that Kevin is watching his parents from the living room. I sigh. No child should have to see their parents fight like this. Using a remote I stole from the living room I turn on the living room TV. Kevin stops watching his parents fight and starts watching my favorite sitcom, the one about a happy family.