I PULLED FORCEFULLY ON the string, and with a whoosh the wooden stairs slid down, landing with a thump onto the carpeted floor. My body shook nervously – I knew it was forbidden for me to go up there. But my parents were away, and my curiosity finally got the best of me. I jumped down from the bed which I had mounted so I could reach the string, and quickly ran to the foot of the ladder. Looking up I could see nothing but a Cimmerian hole, so black that it seemed to suck all light from the room like a black hole.
My palms sweated furiously, and for the umpteenth time I had second thoughts on my decision to disobey my parents. But I had made up my mind – or rather, my curiosity had – and started my ascent up the wooden rungs and into the attic. My foot slipped on the second rung from the sweat my feet were coated in and my face hit the bottom bar of the ladder.
“Ow!” I cried out to no one in particular. Sometimes it just seemed to make it better to yell out when I was in pain. I was on the floor now, my legs sprawled in front of me. I rubbed my mouth and forehead gently, smearing a few drops of blood that had dripped from my nose onto my otherwise unblemished head. Tears began to form in my eyes, but I quickly shook them away. I was eight years old, after all. Much too old for tears, as my dad would say.
And immediately the memories came rushing back. Memories of my Daddy; far too few memories. He had been gone for five months, off on another tour of duty for the United States Navy. Every moment he was home seemed happier for the whole family: me, Mommy, and even little Johnny who was still crawling. I missed him so much. He was the one who had first given me the idea of going up here, but my mom adamantly refused, muttering things like “he’s too young” and “maybe when he’s older” and “a boy his age shouldn’t see that.” I didn’t know what she meant, but it only piqued my interest more and now I could wait no more.
I quickly stood up, rubbing my head again, knowing that I must hurry if I were to make it up and back down before my mom got home from grocery shopping. I took extra care to wipe my sweaty feet on the carpet and continued back up the ladder, toward the aphotic hole where I had no idea what awaited me.
I took each step slowly, remembering what had happened the last time when I had tried to move too quickly; I didn’t want to fall again.
My head emerged, and finally my eyes adjusted. I wasn’t nearly as nebulous as it looked from below; rays were flying upward from the hole the ladder was connected to in the floor.
I climbed out of the portal completely, pulling myself up with my arms. I stood up, stumbling at first on my short legs, but gaining my bearings and observing the scene around me. Along the walls were many boxes, tables, shelves, and other various objects, each box with assorted items hanging out. To my right, in front of a large window covered in drapes, was a colossal telescope, easily twice my size.
For a moment I simply stood there, gawking at its magnificence. Slowly, as if under their own power, my legs began to move, directing my body toward the gold and silver contraption. I was completely mesmerized, taken aback at the elegance of the discovery before me. I placed a hand on the drapes and flung them open. Immediately the moon- and star-light shone brightly through the large window, sparkling when it hit the gleaming metal of the under parts of the telescope – the top was covered in a layer of dust.
My mouth hung open, and I could do nothing as I neared it but stare. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I knew it was a telescope: my dad had taught me about the stars and planets and other entities that roamed the skies, and how this device allowed you to see them more clearly. But I had never seen one this big in person, much less been able to use one.
A smile crept onto my lips, the joy to receive the treasure of knowledge the telescope gave clearly present on my face.
I tried to reach the eyepiece, but its towering height made it much too far away for me to grasp. Instead I proceeded to the window again, enthralled by the stars. There were so many of them that the sky seemed almost a faded white instead of dark blue. But I could see the darkness creeping out from behind the brilliance – the background hanging behind the dots of light.
The crescent moon shone brightest of all, like some sort of sideways smile of radiance. It was truly beautiful. I had seen the night sky before, of course, but I had never taken the time to really enjoy it. And it was amazing.
I finally looked down to see the grassy fields that surrounded our country home, a dirt path leading into the woods and beyond…
A tear dripped down my cheek as I remembered the times Daddy and I had gone into those woods together. At any foreign sound he would grip my hand even tighter and tell me it was okay. He would just continue walking forward, completely confident and unafraid.
It didn’t seem like anything could ever scare him. He was always so brave, so unwavered by any scary noise or sight. I had always felt safe when I was with him. His large hand holding mine. His comforting smile. His eyes that showed how happy he was to be with me. They were the best moments of my life, spending time with him. I’d go anywhere with him. Even the scariest places imaginable.
I missed him so much. Why does he always have to be gone? I wiped my eyes and face, clearing the tears away. Daddy wouldn’t want me to cry. He always told me to be strong. I had to look after Mommy when he wasn’t here.
I tried to remain strong, but it was hard. He’s always gone so long. At least I knew it wouldn’t be much longer now.
“Only another month,” I whispered to myself as I looked out to the woods again. I saw what I thought was a squirrel leap from one tree to another.
I looked up at the sky for a second time: the blanket of black and white hanging over my head. And suddenly, despite the beauty, I felt so small. I finally looked away and turned around.
I looked around the attic. There was so much – so much history, so many seemingly random things. The excitement in my chest grew again. There was so much, and I couldn’t possibly go through it all in time. My eyes landed on an old, beaten chest on the opposite side of the room. I quickly ran to it, my stubby legs probably looking ridiculous as I toddled across the wooden floor.
I flung myself onto it, searching for an opening before I found a rusted lock. I attempted to open it, but even in its antique shape it stayed true to its purpose: keeping unwanted people out. I searched for a key, but could find none. My eyes rested on the chest again, and for the first time I noticed all the stickers dotting its sides. Then I knew what the trunk was, what it contained. Daddy had told me a couple years ago about his own dad, and how he had fought in something called World War Two. He said it was in Germany, and that no one in our family had ever gone there since. The stickers revealed the contents of the case, all from Germany or about the military.
I knew this must be what my Mommy didn’t want me seeing. She had said the war was too horrible for me to learn about yet. And she knew that if I came up here I’d want to know what was in the chest and that nothing else would interest me, even the telescope. She was right – the chest fascinated me, and I rubbed my hands across its dust-lined surface.
I wanted to stay here, find a way to open it, to discover the treasures of Grandad’s past, but I heard a car pulling up in the driveway.
I quickly scurried back to the opening in the floor as fast I could, forgetting to close the drapes again and not caring to be careful with my descent on the steps, only concerned with not letting my mom catch me. I made it down without falling and I pushed the ladder back into its crevice, the flap with the string swinging shut behind it. I quickly jumped on my bed and picked up a comic book just as I heard the front door open.
“Jack, I’m home!” I heard her call from downstairs.
“Hi, Mommy!” I called back. I tried to focus on the pages before me, but I couldn’t think about anything besides the gems I had found above my room. I knew I had to find out what was in that chest.