Friday, June 23, 2017

What Remains, part 3

Jim woke with a start, his heart racing.

"Lisa." He said, his voice cracked with sleep.

It was light outside, sun shining full through the windows. The house was warming quickly with the sun's rays and Jim found himself sweating even with a single layer top sheet. He tossed the sheet to the side and picked his clothes from the floor and groggily put them on. He felt as if he was trying to recall a dream, but was having a hard time bringing it back to focus.

He stood and moved toward the door, but then froze, looking back at the mess he'd made of the bed and sighed. He loosely pulled the blankets up and flopped them back into place, tucking here and there to give the appearance of being made.

He grimaced as he looked at his half measure of effort from a distance, leaning to and fro, before deflating in disappointment and walking out of the room.

Breakfast was served with cracked wheat pancakes, thick cut ham, and eggs. The sisters provided maple flavored jellies that they spread over the pancakes with a knife. The kids were especially riled. Jim felt ready to face them as a father again.

Jim spent the morning exploring the area with Daniel and Abby. They set out through the fields first where he showed them the barn he'd stayed in earlier. He felt closer to being himself than he had for some time. Perhaps even before he'd lost their mother and she was struggling under her fight with cancer. There were still moments where Abigail paused with a distant sadness, but it slowly faded under the bright sunlight.

After exploring the immediate grounds, they jumped in the car and drove for a bit. Jim sat, enjoying the car's air conditioning. His eye's sparkled as he saw the ditches that ran along the sides of the road. They were filled with water from the irrigation fed into the neighboring farms.

Around mid-afternoon they came home, soaked and exhausted. Jim shook his head as he looked at the sunburned children and spent some time with a washcloth, cooling their sun touched skin then putting lotion on them. He hoped that he'd gotten to it in time.

They'd missed their usual afternoon nap, so he quickly stripped them down in the bathroom and followed them to their room. It was the first time he'd seen it. He wondered whose stayed in this room all those years ago. He looked around at the decor and found it similar enough to his own space, but with a much smaller bed. Abigail and Daniel were content to share. The house was warm, but with the shades pulled, it gave the illusion of being cooler than it was. A standing metal fan helped by pushing a calm breeze over the bed.

While they settled in, Jim took a seat near their bedside and picked up a book that sat there on the table. It was a leather-bound journal. He'd almost mistaken it for Lisa's, but this one was well worn, and the pages bulged with use.

He thumbed at the leather strap and opened it up. On the introductory page, in a controlled, but unpracticed hand was the name...

"Abigail," he whispered to himself.

Lisa had chosen the name for their daughter because of her ancestor. It was strange to have such a direct connection as what sat in his hand. He ran his hand over the thick parchment paper, tracing the curves of the name with his finger. He started to open the book further when he heard quick footsteps coming up the stairs and the straight-backed Janice walked in.

"Oh, that's where that went." She said, catching her breath.

"Were you looking for this?" Jim said, speaking in a hushed tone, closing the book and thumbing the strap back into place, "Lisa talked about Abigail a lot."

He held the book in his hands, the looked up at the expectant Janice.

"You'd think she'd met her, as much as she'd said about her, but she was..." He paused for a moment, searching for less painful words, "She was gone before Lisa was born?"

Janice's lips with compressed into a thin line, she nodded and reached toward Jim with an upturned hand. He handed it to her, but was pained to do so.

"Yes. It was a very long time ago." She said, visibly relaxing with the book.

She looked to the children and the straight line of her lips turned into a smile. Janice held the journal in front of her, rocking on her heels like a young woman with her school books. There was a moment of silence.

"Our family comes from a painful history." She said quietly, her eyes moving over the room before settling on Jim, "Come with me. This is a history as important to you as it is to us. You are part of our family, after all."

Jim stood up from the chair quietly. The children had lulled to sleep and did not stir. He stepped from the room and followed Janice. At the far side of the hallway, he could see Rachael, still in her nightgown a noon, brushing her long hair. She looked incredibly thin. She looked up and him and smiled, her eyes sparkled.

Jim returned the smile.

"Here." Janice said, pointed up at the ceiling.

There was an inset panel with a thick string hanging from it. The string itself was bound to the wall to keep it from hanging in the middle of the hallway. She unwound it and pulled down with some effort. The door swung down and a retracted set of steps revealed themselves. She carefully folded them out, being silent so as to not wake the children.

He immediately felt the heat from the opening and grimaced. The sun baked the roof, turning the attic into something of an oven. Janice led the way and Jim followed with his misgivings.

Light from the East facing window lit the attic easily. Recent cardboard boxes gave way to wooden trunks and footlockers painted a military green. Some of the footlockers were yet older, plain oak with riveted leather bound edges. The hand painted numbers and names were worn away and illegible.

Jim trembled in spite of the heat. He saw nearly two dozen dolls, boys and girls, and varying levels of quality set up in a semi-circle, just out of the sun. Half a dozen toy soldiers made from folded metal, lacquered, and painted were in a pile in the vicinity. Remnants of where Abigail and Daniel had played the night before.

He felt his own children's excitement in this place. The thrill of discovery, wanting to upend boxes and see all that he could see. His family felt like they had left all their cultural history behind, firmly planted in the present. He knew very little about his own grandparents much less his parents. They had left no story, no real legacy. It made him wonder about the future he would leave for his own.

"This is our history." She said.

She made a motion around her, standing, but staying bent at the waist to avoid hitting the rafters.

"If you do remove anything, please return it. I have a system, if you couldn't tell." She gave Jim a self-aware smile.

Jim moved around on his knees, looking over the boxes.

"Oldest are toward the middle and packed tightly to keep the heat from getting to them too much. I had to move many things into the cardboard boxes. Don't depend on how old the boxes look to determine how old they are." She said.

Jim looked around. She smiled at his obvious delight.

"It's good to finally meet you, Jim," her eyes sparkled as she said it, "I'm going to get out of this heat."

She dabbed at her forehead and let out a breath as she turned and went down the steps to the floor below.

Jim read the careful handwriting and started moving through the boxes, like a kid at the foot of a Christmas tree, looking for the first gift to open.

From the movement of dust on the floor it appeared that one of the heavier footlockers had been moved to the back. He followed the lines and removed other cardboard boxes that were stacked on top of it, clearing a path. It had a small lock on it, but the lock itself was one of those simple cross keys. He took his own bundle of keys and pulled a small folding tool free from it. One twist and the lock fell open.

He opened it and the smell of must and parchment oozed from the footlocker. Jim's eyes widened. Stacks of small leather journals very similar to both Lisa and Abigail's. They varied slightly in design and color. Some in the top left of the box were far more rustic, with thick twining threads through the spine. Each of them had the same leather strap with the formed metal post to hold it shut. He thumbed through the diaries. Some had a name and date, while others were hidden. He considered where to start.

"Janice has a system, right?" He breathed to himself, "Let's go back to the beginning."

He looked for signs of age and, predictably, the journals were stacked from oldest to newest in columns, moving left to right, then row upon row putting the newest in the front right. He tentatively reached to the last and picked it up. It appeared to be recent, in comparison to all of the others. He thumbed the strap and turned to the first page.

Written in a precise, flowery handwriting, "To Abigail. From all of us."

The words sent a chill down his spine. He wasn't sure what to think of it, but it seemed eerily prescient. He put the diary back into place and then moved back to the top left. The stack was nearly six deep. He looked to the first page and saw the name June. He continued paging through the different books, finding a total of eight belonging to June before the name Geraldine showed up.

He pulled the journals from the footlocker and secreted them into a box that had a small jewelry box and very little else in it. He closed the footlocker, clicked the lock, and replaced the boxes from where he'd pulled them, leaving no trace. He moved down the steps carefully, then dutifully returned the steps to the ceiling, replacing the cord.

Jim brought the box into his room and grabbed a glass of water, then began to read the words of June.