Jackie felt herself shrink to child-size as she looked up the impossibly long stairway; its only illumination provided by a weak ceiling bulb over the top landing. Noting the gloom and the ancient peeling wallpaper, she had to admit to her child-self that it was creepy; but, neither she nor anyone else that she knew of had experienced trauma in this home, unless you counted the mashed turnips at Thanksgiving.
The old house had settled and Jackie had to brace the wall with her left hand as she picked her way up the tilted stairs. She couldn’t believe that someone had thought painting the steep, slanted steps with slick enamel was a good idea. Jackie didn’t want to think how her arthritic grandmother had managed them all these years. Now that her Baba had finally agreed to move to Florida to live with Aunt June, it was up to the various relatives to help sort through what remained of the things in Illinois. Jackie had pulled attic duty.
At the top of the stairs were three doors. The two to either side were open and lead to bedrooms. The closed door straight ahead went to the attic. She could never remember that door ever being opened and what was behind it was a total unknown. She could remember the adults admonishing the children not to go where they weren’t supposed to, and to stay out of things — and she had obeyed.
She put her hand on the knob. There was no electrical shock, no ominous voice warning her away. It was a doorknob. She looked up at the ceiling bulb and said firmly, “I have permission to go in here. I have permission! It is ok!” She laughed. “Geez, drama much, Jackie?”
The door stuck slightly and then swung open. She paused, half expecting some disembodied arm to yank her through. Her eyes grew acclimated to the poor light and she saw what looked to be a light string pull a few feet ahead. She approached and pulled. Someone had splurged on a 60-watt bulb and the small space sprung into light.
It was more a large closet than an attic. It ran the width of the house and its ceiling angled down with the roofline. It was bare rafters, bare studs, and bare plank flooring. There was a thin layer of dust but overall the place was remarkably clean. It was, however, oppressively hot and stale.
It may not have been a true attic, and it wasn’t dripping with cobwebs but everything else looked like the stereotypical “don’t go up there!” attic clutter. There was a distressed dress form, scrunched cardboard boxes, dented moving barrels, various trunks, fallen magazine stacks, broken furniture, empty picture frames… This was going to take a while. She sat down on a clear spot, pulled some boxes over, opened the top one and began the process of sorting into three piles: keep, give, or throw. It was too bad her phone didn’t get service out here or she’d use up her data allotment and listen to some music. But silence it was.
The first boxes were easy, filled with old invoices and receipts. Throw away. A box of unremarkable books. Give away. She had discovered she needed a fourth pile for items that she didn’t want but were kind of cool, like the hoop skirt frame that was the only occupant of one of the large cardboard barrels. Every so often she stood up, stretched and slid the processed piles out of the attic into the bigger space of the bedrooms.
She’d done a lot of good work in several hours. She looked at her watch and decided to put in a few more before having a late lunch. Going back into the attic she surveyed what to tackle next. There was a stack of various wooden boxes at the far end. They looked interesting. One was instantly recognizable by its domed shape and Singer written across it. It was a very old sewing machine case. She lifted the lid and saw that the machine inside was shiny black with exuberant decoration.
Settling in on the floor she repeated her earlier process, pull a few boxes forward and sort. There was a small, hinged box that looked like it could have held cigars at one time. Inside were a few faded postcards, a polished shark’s tooth on a chain, a heavy gold Mason’s ring, and some foreign coins. Another slightly bigger box held old dolls clothes, in horrid condition and not worth saving. Another cigar box held a surprise — an old pistol, in a leather holster, the pistol’s empty magazine and old cardboard box with ammunition. The holster had the words “1917 Sattlerinnung Schlotter Dresden” stamped on it. She cautiously removed the heavy piece from the leather. Dad had taught her a little about firearms, a long time ago, and her mind scrambled to recall the lessons.
Even with the magazine removed, she pointed the gun away and checked the safety. She pulled the slide back and it moved easily. There was no shell in the chamber and the firing pin was intact. Funny how the odd bits of information were flooding back through time. The thing still made her nervous but now she looked at it more closely. It was beautiful in its mechanical way, a lustrous dark gray. It seemed to be in pristine condition. Someone had obviously cared for it. It was stamped with the date 1916 and there was an intricate engraved monogram. Her grandfather had been in WWI but this was obviously not US issued. The monogram was not his. How did her grandfather end up with a German pistol? He had never talked about his war experience. She aimed the pistol at the dress form and pretended to shoot, making “pow” sounds like a kid playing cops and robbers. Grinning, she put the gun back in the holster, everything back in the box and moved on.
Other boxes held letters and postcards. She didn’t read these, on something this personal she’d ask her grandmother first. She looked up and noticed it was getting darker — her watch showed she had spent several more hours than she had intended. She stood up and stretched, about ready to call it a day when she noticed another wooden box off to the side. One more and that would do it.
This box was finer than the others — made of some dark, highly polished wood. She brushed off the dust. At first it looked like the box was upside down, sitting on its lid, but the intricate gold decorations indicated that the box was upright, just that the top was deeper than the bottom. The lid was secured to the bottom by 4 little brass latches, one on each side. It was about a 10 inch cube, very heavy and it wasn’t parting with a clue as to what could be inside.
She flipped the latches and gently lifted the top off. The interior was heavily padded and lined in time-frayed dark purple silk. Nestled on top of an embedded stand in the bottom lid was a large rock crystal sphere. Who in her boringly upright family would have ever had use for a crystal ball? And what use? This was no dime store tchotchke; clearly, someone had spent some serious coin for it. This was a stranger find than the German pistol, which at least made some sense given her grandfather’s history.
She sat thinking about what she had found so far today and what more there was to do. She stared blankly toward the crystal but not really at it. Her stomach rumbled and she realized she hadn’t eaten since early that morning. Her mind was turning to food when a flash in the crystal caught her eye. She focused her attention. What was that? A flaw in the stone and a random ray of light?
Her grown-up voice was speaking again, telling her that it was late, that she hadn’t eaten, that it was hot, and that she had watched too many bad movies. She continued to look though, to find an explanation of what she had just seen. Jackie moved her head, and nudged the box base to reposition the crystal slightly, trying to get different perspectives. At some point her eyes unfocused and that’s when she saw fog moving inside the sphere. It looked like mist, forming, rising, swirling.
She watched, transfixed. The mist contracted and it began to take shape and color. It became the back porch of Baba’s house, as seen from the back yard. There was the half-screened walls, the door, the three wooden steps leading to it, and the peony next to them. A dark figure appeared, small at first, then larger as it came nearer to the porch steps. It paused then climbed the steps and tried the door. The door was locked. It turned down the steps, stopping by the flowering bush. Jackie did not recognize the person. It was clearly an adult but she could not tell if it was male or female.
She shivered. The image vanished. Unnerved, she sat for a few moments and then said out loud that she needed to quit for the day, go have dinner and call her husband. She wasn’t sure what she’d tell Frank. She picked up the box with the gun. She’d tell Frank about finding the pistol; he’d be interested in that. She’d brought her laptop with her so she’d do a little research on it tonight at the hotel. Days ago she had determined she wasn’t staying in the empty old house, now she was glad of that decision.
She flipped on the stairway light. She pulled the light string for the attic and it became instantly so much darker, even with the other light on. She grabbed the gun box with one hand, braced the other on the wall and started slowly down the crooked steps.
She was three steps from the bottom when a loud banging cut through the silence. Startled, she dropped the box and the contents bounced down the stairs. Someone was knocking on the back door. No one should be at the house besides her, let alone be at the back door. She scrambled for the gun, the magazine and the ammunition. She left the cigar box where it had fallen. She took the gun out of the holster. Sitting on the bottom step she put the bullets into the magazine and slid the magazine into the gun until it clicked. She moved the slide up. She turned the light off to the stairway. She sat, wondering what to do. It was just someone knocking on a door. The knock came again. Then silence. She stood up. Good, they went away.
Then she heard the front porch door open and the old floor boards announce footfalls. Someone was going to the interior front door — the door that wasn’t locked.
The front door opened, causing an audible puff as the air pressure changed. She silently slid up a step, the stairs cooperating by not squeaking. She sat down, hidden between the narrow stairway walls and the nearly complete darkness. She steadied the gun on her knee, holding it with both hands, pointing it forward toward the center of the door opening. Tensely perched, with senses heightened and barely breathing, she waited. She heard movement first in the entry way, then to the right and behind, to the living room. She saw no indication of lights being turned on. No familiar voice called out. A faint rustle indicated that the intruder was now in the kitchen. One more turn and they would be at the base of the stairs. She prayed she remembered the lessons her dad had taught her. She prayed that the old gun would work if it needed to and not blow her up in the process.
The footfalls stopped in the kitchen. The silence wrapped around her. There was a hint of a step, not away but toward. She heard the empty cigar box sliding across the floor as a foot knocked into it. A silhouette came into view in the doorway. She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
The shock from the gun’s explosion wrenched her hands up and her eyes flew open. No one was there. There was a ripped hole in the wall opposite her where the bullet had gone. The only sound she could hear was the ringing in her ears from the blast. Frozen, she remained still for what seemed to be hours but was probably minutes. All she could see was straight ahead through the door frame and the peeling walls of the stairwell. With the gun held in front of her, she stood up and quietly inched down to the base of the stairs. Her back hugged the wall as she looked around the corner into the kitchen. Nothing. She reached for the light switch and the kitchen burst into view. Still no one. She slid to the other side and felt for the switch in the dining room. Empty. She eased into the living room. Nothing. With each room it was the same.
With the gun still in front of her she walked the circuit of the rooms twice. She checked the door to the basement, it was locked. The door to the back porch was locked. There was no way anyone could have passed her to go upstairs. She let out a huge sigh, convinced that no one was in the house. Explaining the bullet in the wall to her cousins would be interesting. Explaining any of this, to anyone, including herself was going to be interesting. Shaken, she left the interior lights on, turned on all of the outside lights, gathered her things, put the gun back into the box, shut the house and walked the few feet to her car. She tossed her purse in and leaned in to put the gun box on the passenger side — that’s when she saw the pale pink peony on the driver’s seat.
This started out as a writing exercise for WordPress’s Daily Prompt about curve balls. It was to be a 100-word Story. It became longer. Then it decided to participate in some of the Writing 101 assignments, also sponsored by WordPress. It wound up being involved in “Kill your darlings” — where over the period of several days you systematically whack out a bunch of prose. Then it wandered over to “give your first sentence the axe”. Despite all of that weeding and whacking it still managed to retain enough words to become my very first short story evah.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 9/17/14