It was a mystery and like all eight-year-old children, Layla loved a mystery. She knew where it was hidden, or she was pretty sure, and patiently waited for her parents to vanish into their backyard and work on the family garden. Her parents took great pride in their miniature farm, as they liked to call it. Layla loved the rabbits and chickens and the wildness of the small patch of trees and vines that grew near the stream that budded up against their property. They didn’t quite live in the country, but it was a smaller town, mostly black with a small post office, large church and a new impressive shopping center with outdoor restaurants, coy pond and a small stage for music. It was a gathering place most evenings where adults could catch up with each other, kids could play and teens could meander through stores gossiping, as most teens do.
Layla heard her parents talking to her Uncle James the night before. She always laughed at them for trying to hide a good conversation by whispering because they didn’t realize that it was their whispers that triggered the signal to pay attention to what they were talking about. Adults didn’t seem to know that they could tell a secret at full volume and most kids wouldn’t even hear it, but whispers – whispers are like a spotlight. Layla put down her dolls and crawled to the floor and silently made her way to the banister where she could hear but not be seen. She strained to catch each word but the background music was a touch too loud and distorted her uncle’s speech.
When they changed the subject and returned to normal volume, Layla stayed in place trying to put together the fragments of the conversation she caught, and like a puzzle with missing pieces tried to ‘see’ the picture. She was concentrating so hard that she didn’t hear her father climbing the steps until the very last moment, and she looked over her shoulder, caught her breath and silently scrambled into her room in almost one motion. As he passed her room, she heard him pull out his house keys. She looked confused and tried to visualize what was happening on the other side of her wall. When she heard him fill the lock leading to the attic, Layla’s heart skipped a beat in excitement. The Attic was a mysterious and glorious place to play but she wasn’t allowed to return there once they learned of her asthma. She longed to pull out old dresses and costumes and hats that were resting in old leather trunks. She missed dancing on the creaky floors and watching the dusk dance with her when the light shone through the windows. She even missed the spiders that she would often encounter and capture in old mason jars to study, and then eventually set free. As an only child, she had to find ways to amuse her self, especially during the summer months and for a time, that was her private playground.
She still cannot quite recall the moment it happened, but suddenly her lungs seemed to revolt and she collapsed on the stairs trying to go for help. The hospital stay was far worse for her parents, but Layla didn’t mind it. She liked that she had a bed she should move with the press of a button and her very own tv, plus there was always someone to talk to and the other children were nice. She became pen pals with two of the kids, Joseph and Gabby. During her stay, they would tell stories and read and color between treatments and tests. When Joseph died of his cancer last Christmas, Layla didn’t open one present. She said if he couldn’t have Christmas then why should she? The gifts remain in the hall closet waiting for her to change her mind. But to her, they are just a reminder that her friend died, and they would remain there, untouched.
When Layla heard her father’s heavy foot descending the stairs she called for him. “Papa? Can you help me?” She grinned when he came straight to her room, “Hey pumpkin. You should be getting ready for bed.” “I know,” she smiled. “Will you tuck me in and read a chapter?” Her father smiled, “Sure. You’re Uncle is heading out soon. You get washed up and I’ll come back up in a few minutes. Okay?” Layla smiled and nodded. Her father went back down to join the family who were laughing about something and Layla sprung up to see if her plan worked. She snuck into the hallway and grinned proudly when she saw the attic door slightly ajar. Her parents started locking the attic when they kept catching her playing up there, but her well-timed call this evening let it slip his mind and now she could hunt for whatever it was that he had hidden up there.
As she climbed the stairs, the boards creaked so loud it froze her in place. She looked back to see if she had alerted them, but they continued talking. As she reached the landing, she pulled out her small Dora the Explorer flashlight and smiled at the sight and smells of her long-lost playground. As she started to rummage through, she heard the front door to the house open and she froze in place. Hearing the calls of “good night, now” and “you drive safe” she knew she had mere seconds to get back to her room. Taking one last look around, she smiled and slipped down the stairs, closed the door and returned to her room. The wheezing didn’t bother her, it was well worth it and she smiled as she took a puff of her inhaler and then used her breathing techniques to calm her lungs into submission.
Now that it was morning and a Saturday, Layla knew that she had at least an hour or two of uninterrupted time to explore the attic while her parents worked in the garden. Her father never when up there unless it was to store something of value, and after the whispers from her uncle, she was sure it was going to be a great treasure hunt. Layla could smell the morning coffee and she heard her parents talking. “Layla should lend us a hand.” Her father said as he drained the last of his coffee. “Let her sleep in, dear.” Her mom replied as she loaded the dishwasher. “We’ll need the big basket for the squash.” “It’s on the back porch, dear.” her mother calmly replied and reminded him, “and get your hat, we’re not risking heat stroke today.” They chatted and laughed as they walked out the back door with Jupiter, their old yellow lab, leading the way. Their acre of land was divided up between raised garden beds on one side and a large chicken coop and bunny hutch on the other. In the middle was an outdoor living room area with grill for entertaining. The house had been in the family for a generation and recently got a facelift with new paint and shutters and upgrades including new double pane windows, sliding glass doors and a wrap around porch. They thought about putting in a lap pool but settled on a hot tub.
The gurgles of the stream gave it all a nice calming effect and on the weekends, this is where they spent all their time, it was their reward for commuting into the city every day for work. Their demanding jobs fell away in their little oasis and their impressive garden greatly satisfied their passion for cooking.
Layla looked out the bathroom window to see them heading towards the garden beds and grinned. She ran to her room, quickly changed into jeans and a t-shirt and as she sprinted into the hall, stopped short. She turned and rummaged through a drawer in the hall and pulled out a paint mask and strapped it on and pocketed her inhaler. As she placed her hand on the door knob leading to the attic, Layla had a moment of fear that her father might have remembered to lock the door after she had fallen asleep but sighed in relief when it spun in her hands and gave way to her slight push. She climbed the stairs and looked around trying to decide where to begin her search.
Though she had no idea what had been stored up there, she did know one thing… “What isn’t dusty?” she mumbled to herself through the mask.
She started high, knowing her father’s height could make him place it at the top of something. She climbed over old furniture and discovered an old doll that she had left there some time ago. “There you are!” she said to Ellie and dusted her off. As she continued to search she came across more treasures that brought back fond memories but also pushed her focus away from both what she was there to find, and her lungs, which were starting to pinch and squeeze. It wasn’t long before Layla was prancing in her grandmother’s old frock and matching Sunday hat but when she twirled, she didn’t see the drapes and got tangled in them falling over in a heap. As she untangled herself, she pulled the mask off and swept back her curly mane looking around. From that vantage point she noticed something shiny across the room. She grinned and started to crawl across the dusty floor while reaching into her pocket. “What,” she wheezed, “is that?” she asked herself as she made her way under a small coffee table.
She only stopped when her breath became so shallow that she felt light-headed. She plunged her small hand into another pocket, then another and another and looked confused why one of them wasn’t holding the inhaler. She looked back and the room spun, her lungs rebelling against her. Tears burned her eyes and she tried to call out but no sound escaped her lips. She tipped the edge of a tall standing mirror causing it to come tumbling down. Eyes wide at her predicament, she belly crawled to the stairs to make an escape from the dust that was clearly trying to kill her when the corner of her blurry eye caught sight of the shiny box. She looked at the stairs, her escape, and then back at the box. As an eight year old, she prioritized and reached for the box. She hadn’t expected what would happen next. She could never have imagined it. Not ever…