Pull the cord, take down the ladder. There’s a thick layer of dust coating everything in this house, and you leave your handprints as you climb up, spots of brown over dull gray. You wonder how long it has been since someone has stood in the same place as you have.
Reach the attic, get to your feet. Piles surround you, piles of cardboard boxes, of scrapbooks, of memories. You choose a box at random, you open it up. You see a child’s possessions inside - stuffed animals, picture books. You reach in and pull out a ceramic sign, too well-made for the child to have made it. A name is carefully painted on it in elegant calligraphy. It feels cold in your hands.
Put the object away, shut the box. There is one window in the attic, and the sunlight does not make the room feel alive. It instead seems to age it, trapping it in time. You walk towards it, wanting to close the curtains, make it seem less haunting. As you walk across the room, the piles of objects grow sparser, as though whoever moved them up here didn’t want to move too far into the attic. There is only one thing laying by the window - a calendar, a faded picture of a bouquet of flowers on the front.
Stoop to the ground, pick up the calendar. Every month has a new plant - geraniums in January, dahlias in February, clovers in March. The days that have passed are crossed off with Xs in thick black marker. You flip back to the beginning of the calendar and see words written on the calendar, marking off certain days.
January 4th, back to school. You can see the children, three of them, waiting for the bus outside their house, their mother and father standing with them. The youngest child, the little girl, looks excited, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. She talks a million words per minute, about seeing her friends, about talking to her teacher. Her older brother looks to be feeling the opposite way - he scowls, not speaking, but his displeasure apparent in the way he stands, the way he stares at the ground. The eldest of the three just looks bored, only going to school for the purpose of getting it over with.
January 17th, Jack’s doctor’s appointment. The boy is smiling when he comes down the hallway, happy to be getting out of school early. His dad has promised him that they’ll go out to lunch together after the appointment, just the two of them. This is supposed to only be a check-up, there’s no worry present in either father or son’s face.
January 30th, Jack’s specialist appointment. Something is wrong. The youngest child still doesn’t realize it, too young and too innocent to get her head out of her imaginary world. The middle child is afraid, terrified even, but is too proud to show it. The eldest exchanges glances with his parents over his younger sibling’s heads, and they shake their heads, not wanting to talk about it until the last possible moment.
February 8th, chemo. He’s sick. They cannot simply avoid it any longer. Even the youngest child knows now, and she has closed herself off, her usually bubbly self seeming to have deflated. The eldest child is rarely at home anymore, dashing off as soon as he arrives, going to another study session or football game or concert. And the middle child tries to be stoic, he tries not to show his fear, but he looks so, so tired. The parents keep up strong facades in front of the kids, but their father cries in his car every morning, and their mother swallows her anger every time she schedules another chemotherapy appointment, wondering why it has to be her child that goes through this, wondering why it can’t be someone else’s child in some other part of the world, and then hating herself for the selfish thoughts running through her skull. After this chemo is merely marked with a C on the calendar, the appointments integrated into the family’s everyday life.
June 3rd, Emma’s dance recital. The words are crossed off in blue ballpoint pen, and you aren’t quite sure why.
June 16th, Grandparents visiting. This is followed by another event two days later.
June 18th, funeral.
Flip through the calendar, look through the days. The events grow sparser now, the family’s summer clearly uneventful.
August 23rd, Jason to college. You want to believe that the boy got a normal send-off, that the parents weren’t distracted as they drove him to school, that his sibling didn’t have a far-off look in her eyes as she hugged him goodbye. That he didn’t breathe a sigh of relief as their car disappeared into the horizon, thinking about how he didn’t have to be the kid with the dead brother anymore, about how he could become someone who no one looked at with pity, but looked at with another emotion, any other emotion, instead.
September 5th, Emma’s first day of third grade. Jack wasn’t going back to school. Not anymore.
September 21st, divorce lawyer.
October 12th, Emma + dad move out.
November 1st, move in with sister. Alone. The word alone is written in different lettering, hasty, messy, pointed. After that day, there are no more Xs on the calendar. It’s as if the family’s life ended on that day in November.
Close the calendar, look outside. The street looks like any other street in any other town, just as the house looks ordinary, cookie-cutter. If you happened to drive by it one day you wouldn’t think anything of it, just as you wouldn’t think anything of the family if you happened to pass by them in a park or at a store one day.
Walk across the room, climb down the latter. You make note of all the boxes, of all the things this family left behind. Not only objects, but whole lives rest in this attic. You feel disgusted with yourself for daring to touch anything here.
Leave the house, shut the door tight. You pause on your way to your car and turn around, looking back at the place that you have just left. It seems frozen in time, and you know that no matter what happens to it, no matter who moves in or what this house becomes, you will always remember the family that once inhabited it.
Walk towards your car, drive away. You wonder who might visit this house next, who might follow in your footsteps. Your parents sent you here to pick up any old things of yours you might want. You didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was none of it. You thought about taking some of your younger sister’s things and giving them back to her, but eventually decided against it. If she’d wanted them, she would have took them with her when she and Dad moved out. Taking something of your brother’s was a thought that never even crossed your mind. They were his, and even if he died months ago, you wouldn’t want to take them. Your parents said that they could be something to remember him by. You didn’t have the heart to tell them that they wouldn’t help you remember exactly what his laugh sounded like or the exact way that he talked. You should have been there, you tell yourself. Instead of running away for all those weeks while he was dying, you should have been at home with him. But you can’t change the past, no matter how much you want to.
Try to remember, don’t forget. Never come back to your childhood home.