The attic window in front of Clare was covered with a light frost, turning the familiar view of her grandparents’ yard below into a fragmented collage of alien shapes. Ordinarily, she would’ve enjoyed creating an illusory world to match the glass pane’s spidery outlines, but the silhouettes in front of her felt wrong somehow. Leaning closer until her lips almost touched the cold glass, she breathed out until a clear spot formed, and then wiped the water droplets away with the sleeve of her sweater. It wasn’t much of an improvement; the day she revealed was gloomy, the sky above filled with glowering clouds, the driveway below cutting through a forlorn collection of soggy-looking trees.
“Walkin’ in a winter wonderland,” she muttered, turning her back on the depressing view. It wasn’t like she had come upstairs to stare out windows anyway.
The old house’s upper level was a hodgepodge of overstuffed cardboard boxes, a scattering of bedraggled rugs, random pieces of cast off furniture, an immense stack of phonograph records, and pile after pile of abandoned books. It was a wonderful place to spend time alone, and that was precisely what she intended to do. No grandparents, no aunts or uncles, and most especially no prying questions along the lines of, “How are you doing?”
Picking her way through the maze of leaning stacks, Clare finally spied a likely resting spot, a faded loveseat her memory instantly edited to be a brighter shade of blue. Bemused, she began removing various bits of detritus from the familiar cushions, at last clearing a large enough space for her to sit down.
However had they managed to get something this size up the narrow and dangerously steep attic access? Was it a task her Grandpa had stubbornly insisted upon doing alone, or had one or more of her cousins been drafted to help?
Or perhaps … no one had. Maybe, whenever the ladder leading upwards was extended, the law of gravity periodically ceased to exist, allowing unwanted odds and ends to migrate upward from the lower floors, eventually ending up here. Clare smiled, rather liking the idea of her Grandma’s orderly house stealthily creeping atticward under its own volition.
Bending over the loveseat’s arm, she began sorting through the stack of books to her left. Most of the volumes in this pile appeared to be a mismatched set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1986. Might her mother, who yes, would’ve still been in high school at that point, have used some of these to prep for a research paper in one of her subjects?
The loveseat cushion she had cleared felt oddly rigid beneath her. As old as this heap of stuffing was, she should be sagging groundward into a black hole of dusty foam and rusty springs, not perched on top of … what? Growling with frustration, as much at the lack of good reading material as the necessity of moving, Clare rolled off the loveseat, and pushed one hand under the offending cushion. She felt rumpled fabric, and then a smooth expanse of something very different. Another book? Pulling it free, she saw that it was a leather bound journal with ornate letters embossed into its spine.
“Douglas H. Fairchild,” she read silently, tracing the letters with one finger. Hadn’t her Grandpa had a brother named Doug? Opening the journal, she flipped idly through its pages, finding that about a third of them were covered with neat handwritten letters.
I have always believed that there must be consequences intrinsic with every human action, spiraling outward from the critical event in ever widening circles of influence. Take, for example, a pebble throne into a forest pool. The initial disturbance would be easy enough to spot, ripples and eddies moving rapidly away from the point of impact, meandering shoreward and becoming increasingly difficult to track. Of course, the passage of time after the key event would be crucial, long enough so that the preliminary turbulence would have resolved into a recognizable pattern, short enough to ensure that the coherence of the pattern itself would not be lost. Given those prerequisites, What if one’s goal were to run counter to that centrifugal force, instead tracing the current back, back, back in inexorably tightening coils until the focal point was eventually reached.
Possible, or contrary to the frame of human experience we inhabit?
“Of course,” a male voice said from the vicinity of the attic’s ladder, “go looking for Clare, and you’ll find her doing what?”
Just for a moment, caught in her reverie, Clare hadn’t recognized the rumble of her cousin Josh’s adult voice. When had he leapfrogged passed childhood falsetto and squeaky adolescence to arrive at this man-sized baritone?
“Reading,” she answered the rhetorical question, her eyes tracking reluctantly upward from the page to meet his light brown ones. “I just found a journal written by a Douglas Fairchild. Didn’t Grandpa have a brother named that?”
“Oh sure,” Josh agreed, slipping passed where she still sat on the floor and robbing her recently vacated spot on the loveseat. “Crazy Uncle Doug. Well, that’s what Dad always called him, I guess he’d be our crazy Great Uncle Doug.”
“Crazy why?” she asked, leaning back against the warmth of his legs.
If someone had to interrupt her solitude, Josh was probably the best candidate for the job.
“He, uh, lost his wife and child in a freak accident,” Josh said, sounding apprehensive.
Does he seriously think I’m going to come unglued every time someone uses the word accident?
“That’s sad, but hardly crazy,” she prompted.
“Well, the way my Dad tells it, the crazy happened a year later.” Josh’s voice was a little rushed, as though he were still doubtful that telling this story was a good idea. “Apparently, Doug went around to all their family and friends saying that he was organizing a special memorial service. It was like the original funeral all over again, but most people agreed to go, probably hoping it would help him move passed the loss of his family.”
And there it was, the conversational landmine Josh was so afraid she’d trip over. Should she tell him just how fucking arrogant she thought people could be, wheedling, and pushing, and insisting over and over and over again that you, “Move on!” No, not fair, she had insisted he tell her the story.
“Oh, he did all right,” Josh said, “just not the way everyone thought he would. He disappeared.”
Clare’s eyes scanned the page, again finding the words, “Tracing the current back, back, back in inexorably tightening coils until the focal point was eventually reached.”
Is that what Douglas H. Fairchild had done? Was this journal a chronicle of how he had made the attempt? If so, how should she judge his eventual disappearance, as success or failure?
“Who sent you up after me?” Clare asked, closing the journal and thoughtfully stroking its smooth cover with one hand.
“Grandma,” Josh answered. “That child has moped around enough today.” His mimicry of their matriarch’s voice was perfect. Glancing over her shoulder to be sure, she saw that he had put on Grandma’s pursed and disapproving face as well. “Lunch is not an optional meal in this household, not when I’m serving it anyway.”
Clare couldn’t help herself, she cracked up. As children, Josh had been able to entertain them for hours mocking Grandma in just this fashion, and on one memorable occasion, had actually given a performance in front of the daunting lady herself. Now, that voice and expression coming out of his six foot four frame was even more hilarious.
“I swear,” she wheezed, rocking back and forth and trying to get her breath back, “you could make millions if you took that act on the road.”
“Nah,” he chuckled, resting a hand lightly on her shoulder, “I wouldn’t live long enough to make a dime.”
“When did you first do that?” she asked, leaning her head back against his supportive legs until she could see his gently smiling face upside down above her.
“You know,” he said, “that first summer the four of us spent together.” His hand applied gentle pressure to her shoulder, a reminder of his support, his love. “Sam, and me, and you, and Maria.”
“I don’t remember,” she lied, beginning to shake underneath his protective touch.
“The lemonade stand,” he said softly, “under the pecan trees at the end of Grandma’s driveway.” It had been hot, so very hot, and no one had come by for what felt like hours. “Her voice was a cinch, but the face,” Josh chuckled, “I had to actually suck lemons to get that right.” They were laughing so hard they ended up literally rolling on the ground, the two boys, Clare, and Maria, her best friend of all time.
She curled into Josh’s warmth, desperately wanting to escape the pain, to find a pathway that would lead her not only away from this sorrow and loss, but backwards in time, so far back that even the idea of torment this extreme would be unimaginable to her childhood mind. Clare felt herself being lifted, cradled by arms that once, in that long ago place, had been smaller than hers, but now felt large enough to encompass worlds.
“We were studying together the night it happened,” Clare whispered into his chest, barely able to talk and breathe at the same time, “and she said …” They had been lying on Clare’s bed, the textbook for the class they shared propped in-between them. “She said ‘I love you!’” Somehow, even though they were words the two of them had said to each other hundreds of times before, Clare had understood the special significance. “and me,” she rasped, hating herself at that moment, “so fucking small inside that I couldn’t say them back.”
For long seconds, there was nothing but silence, and then, still holding her, Josh stood. Eyes closed, Clare felt herself being carried effortlessly through the stacks of debris on either side, towards the ladder they had both climbed to get here. Had he not heard her? Was he seriously going to carry her all the way down stairs? Would she be delivered, red-faced and wild haired, to Grandma’s mandatory luncheon?
“Clare,” he said quietly, putting her down, “look.”
There was warmth on her face, and when she opened her eyes, she saw that the threatening clouds from earlier had been burned away. The outside world still looked sodden to her, but the bits of frost and pools of standing water flashed sparkling light upward, seeming to promise better times.
“See how the attic doesn’t cover that part of the house to the right?” Josh gestured with one hand to indicate the wing in question.
“Uh yeah,” she agreed, rubbing her eyes and wondering what the hell he was talking about. “It’s an addition they built later.”
“When Mom told me that—I was around eight I think—I didn’t believe her at first. In my mind, Grandma and Grandpa’s house couldn’t change. It had always been here, always would be here, just like everything and everyone I cared about.”
He raised a placating hand. “But see, then I started noticing things. The door I had run through so many times to get over there, it was a normal inside door, but the wall around it was much thicker, and had stone on one side, as though it actually had been the outer wall once. The inside walls weren’t covered with wood paneling like the rest of the house, but white plaster instead.”
“So, what are you saying,” she demanded, getting pissed now, “I should’ve known Maria loved me because of … of what?”
“What I’m saying, Clare, is that when the whole world you’ve always known changes, figuring out how you feel about that change is going to take a while.”
“But she’s gone,” Clare screamed at him, “don’t you understand? She’s gone now. I couldn’t answer her, she left, and then she jumped, and I …”
Josh’s hands were on her shoulders, not attempting to move her in any way, but only as points of contact, bridging the gap between them. “Now you go on,” he said simply, “because on is the only choice we have.”