The Secret of the Attic by Kristin Darell (Prescott)

First published in Kindling II: A Writer's Edit Anthology

Writer's Edit Press, 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0994165510 / ISBN-10: 099416551X

Pieta felt the knot in her stomach tighten as she looked up the narrow blue stairs. Even though she knew she was allowed to venture up now, her childhood fears haunted her. Sweat clung to her palms as her mind dredged up long suppressed feelings of disappointment and betrayal. She reminded herself she’d chosen to come.

The door to the attic was ajar and dust motes danced in beams of sunlight, teasing her from the top of the seventeen stairs. The staircase looked shorter than she remembered. She was a grown-up now, so why was her heart beating so fast? Pieta closed her eyes and tried to calm down. A deep breath helped, but the memories playing out on the inside of her eyelids wouldn’t allow her the respite she craved.

The past few days had been a blur - Grandpa Wal

t’s shock death, his funeral, and now this. Her grandmother’s invitation, uttered by the graveside just a day ago, could not have been more unexpected. But she had come, drawn here just as she had been as a child.

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Pieta could clearly remember the angry, wild man he had been by the end. With untamed grey hair sprouting from his ears, nose and head. Wiry strands even tried to escape from the top of the dirty grey t-shirt that was as much a uniform as his frown. 

“Don’t any of you kids dare tread on my stairs,” he’d say, jabbing his finger towards their small faces. “The attic is off limits.” Pieta had felt so tiny as he towered over them, red-faced. “Now nick off!” he’d roar. 

By then, all memories of the kind-cuddly grandfather he’d once been were as real as the fairytales her mum would read her at night. But the dramatic change in his behaviour had never made sense. Perhaps she’d understand now.

His anger was the only blemish on memories of idyllic summers spent with her extended family by Narrabeen Lake. Staying in her grandparent’s house was like living among the clouds, the world spread out before her. From this place on the hill, the lake would draw Pieta’s eye under the bridge, past the pool and out into the endless ocean. Coming from the country, the expanse of blue simultaneously enthralled and terrified her. Pieta, her brother, and their three cousins spent many sunny days exploring the cul-de-sac, parks and beach, but inevitably it was the mystery of the attic that drew them back, again and again.

Pieta’s eyes scanned the first step as her lips curved into a smile. Defying the passing of time were two shaky letters carved into the wood - M G. Molly Grand was her youngest cousin and the only other girl. The game had started three years before she’d made those marks. Trapped inside by one of the huge storms that rolled in from the ocean, her oldest cousin Max had puffed up his chest, claiming he wasn’t afraid of anything, even Grandpa Walt. 

“Prove it,” Pieta’s brother had said. “I dare you to climb the attic stairs.”

It was a big call, even for a nine -year-old full of bravado. Max had only made it to the fourth step, scratching his initials as proof. Then he’d raced back; his face white and filled with stories of bangs and roars from above. The cousins decided they would all face the attic trial the year they turned nine.

Pieta’s eyes drifted up the stairs to find her contribution carved alongside Max’s mark. The other two boys had only made it to step three.

“Don’t make me do it,” Molly had begged clutching Pieta’s thin arm, her rough hands covered in sticky sand from their recent visit to the lake’s edge. Pieta’s smile disappeared as she remembered how upset her cousin had been. It baffled her now how a grandfather could instill such fear. But Molly had done it, even if she only made it to the first step. What had surprised them most, were the vivid tales she’d spun on her return, about the secret room at the top of the stairs. Dings and rips, yells and a glow from the attic windows punctuated her whispered story and fed their imaginations until Grandpa Walt was everything from a mad scientist building a time machine, to a wizard or alien planning to take over the world. A love of words and stories is something she has always had in common with Molly. Her cousin wrote children’s books now while Pieta’s passion is repairing and collecting precious books.

The memory of their antics returned a small smile to her lips but could not remove the creases in her forehead or the feeling that this was a big mistake. She glanced up the stairs again and noticed some strange marks about halfway up. Drawn by curiosity and a touch of childish rebellion, she moved higher. It was a name, scratched into the wood. She sank down on the step as tears formed in her eyes. Her finger traced the letters – S…   A…   M.

The creak of a door made her jump. “Pieta?” It was her husband, Dorian. “Are you done yet? We can’t leave Samuel too late at mums, you know.” These last words were quieter and she turned to see him looking up at her from the base of the stairs.

“A few more minutes,” Pieta said, surprising herself at how normal she sounded. He nodded, and left her alone again with her ghosts.

Pieta looked back at the step. After two daughters, Sam was the son Grandpa Walt had desperately wanted. He was forty when Sam was born and Grandma was thirty-four. It had been the late sixties and gossips had shaken their heads whispering they were “too old” to have another child. But Sam was special and every one of his nieces and nephews had loved him. He’d always sit with them at family gatherings, choosing their childish antics over the young adult musings of his own siblings. Pieta was glad she’d been old enough to have true memories of Sam, not just feelings contained in photographs.

She reached into her pocket, pulling out the picture she’d stumbled across the night her grandfather had died. It was worn and faded from handling and love. She’d found it in a box of photos she was scanning for her grandmother. Perhaps it had been her grandfather’s fingers that had held it so often and so tight. A little part of her hoped that was so. This image was proof her grandfather had been a different man once. It was why she’d decided to come.

 

A faded pen mark on the back proclaimed it was summer 1987. It showed her sitting with Molly, just a toddler, on her lap, while three little boys appear unusually attentive to the old man before them. She remembered Grandpa Walt had been like an open book then, capturing their hearts and minds with his imagination. Pieta had never forgotten the worlds he conjured full of magic, monsters and dreams. In the picture he was sitting with his eyes shining and his hands held out as if he were trying to embrace the world and the children he’d seemed to love so dearly. Perhaps that was why it hurt so much when he pushed them all away.

 

Watching with a smile from the edge of the photo was a young man wearing his father’s eyes. Sam had been so handsome and always kind. That summer was the last time she’d seen him. Less than a year after the picture was taken, Sam was gone. He was only twenty when he died, taking his father’s soul with him.

 

Pieta could remember her mother’s silent tears as she’d explained her baby brother Sam was gone. At six Pieta had heard the words and cried, but she’d never really understood. The words cancer, sarcoma and tumour were whispered around her. They made no sense, but she knew what a grapefruit was. Apparently ‘it’ had been that size. Sam’s slide had been so fast and dramatic, no-one had noticed Grandpa Walt fading with him. Looking back now, Pieta knew it was Sam’s death that had marked the end of the stories and smiles.

She smoothed the creases as the picture in the photo began to blur behind unexpected tears. How could she blame her grandfather for who he had become? Her real Grandpa Walt had died with his son. The man from the attic was just a stranger in his body.

A teardrop slipped free, landing on the stairs beside Sam’s name like a full stop. Pieta stood, sending dust swirling into the light above her. Grandpa Walt had left her the contents of his attic for a reason. It was time to find out why.

Seventeen stairs was a surprisingly short journey in the end, and then she emerged into the light. Shielding her eyes Pieta scanned the room, a laugh bursting from her lips. There were no crazy machines or alien spacecraft. The front of the room was lined with windows and in the centre, on an old wooden table with metal legs, was a bright red Valentine typewriter. Behind it, in chaotic piles, were books and papers, many yellow with age and creased with love. It looked as if the typewriter was leading its army of words towards the ocean. 

In the opposite corner to the stairs, stood an old timber and leather armchair. Its seat was cracked and dry from sun and wear, but full of character, just like her grandfather. 

“He was writing.”

Now she understood this unexpected request.. Somehow he must have known about her love of precious books. Pieta felt lighter now the anger had gone. She could imagine Grandpa Walt watching her as she crossed to the desk. The typewriter’s keys were black and many so worn the letters were barely visible. She wondered how his huge flat fingers had managed such a delicate task, but the evidence was all around her.

Beside the typewriter was a typed manuscript, with a handwritten note on top.

For Pieta, who loved him too. I hope you will read this and understand. At last, it is time to be with my son.

GW

 

Careful not to wet the papers with her tears, Pieta picked up the little book, its pages bound neatly with old twine. Her voice cracked as she read the title, “The Yesterday Boy and the World of Forever, by Walter Grand”.

 

Pieta could hear her husband calling, but life could wait a few moments longer. She crossed to the armchair with its worn leather seat. In the warmth of the late morning sun she opened the manuscript. While the cover was new and white, the pages inside smelt of old abandoned libraries. The paper was slightly yellow and stiffening, every letter on it stamped with precision and care. She began to read.

 

Once upon a time there was a boy called Sam who lived in an attic at the top of seventeen blue stairs.