The Boy in the Attic

[Author’s Note: This was my entry into Narrator Neighborhood‘s first Quick-Write competition. You can check out the winners here.  They’re doing a new competition for fairy tales right now, and I’m a guest judge. You should check it out!]

Distant voices burbled up through the old boards beneath Johann’s feet. Occasionally there was a burst of commotion from downstairs as the neighborhood children scattered past. Whenever he shifted even a mite billowing clouds of dusty decay were thrown up, filling the abandoned attic. Johann was forced to bury his face inside his shirt to muffle a violent coughing fit.

“Please, God, don’t let them find me this time,” he prayed to the darkness. As usual, the darkness swirled impressively about the child’s feet as the dust began to settle. It ignored him, of course. So Johann sat, waiting for a silence in which he could flee.

Eventually the noises from below began to fade away, and Johann crept slowly out of the forgotten place hidden among tattered cardboard boxes. He didn’t know what had been buried up here before Esmé – “the Witch” – had passed away, and he didn’t much care to find out. Johann’s careful steps wove their way around the boxes with precision in a twisting, turning pattern.

Small chittering sounds snuck out into the attic’s heavy air from behind the slanted planks of the long, low ceiling. The noises skittered up and down the ceiling’s ramp from the opposite side as little grey and black and brown mice ran up to the apex and then slid back down to the base. About a foot of the walls of the squat little house peeked up past the attic’s floor to meet the slanting roof.

Suddenly, a tan blur shot swiftly across the floor. Johann’s careful steps froze to an immediate halt. Motes of dust spiraled in the paper-thin beams of light, dancing upon Johann’s rapid breaths as adrenaline rampaged through him.

His foot set – and it dragged out a long, piercing squeak from the board under thick dust; Johann’s step was chosen poorly. He winced, and time held its breath as he stood on the balls of his feet, halfway to tiptoeing.

No sound from downstairs.

The fair-haired child let loose a small sigh and settled the rest of his weight onto the squeaky board. There was another sharply pitched noise – and then a soft click sung out, just above Johann’s head.

Johann looked up with questing eyes for the source of that little sound. Overhead, one of the whitewashed planks had parted exactly one inch. Carefully shifting his weight upon the old and squeaky board, Johann turned and extended his fingers into the narrow gap. Beneath his touch and out of sight in the dark, recessed compartment he felt the smooth grain of carefully crafted and varnished wood. When his fingers pulled aside, the plank which had covered this hidden cache moved effortlessly.

Inside the secret was a small box, about as long as Johann’s forearm and both a few inches wide and deep, so that it formed a long, narrow rectangle. In no time at all the child’s slender fingers coaxed the box from where it had been safely kept for so many years. He crept back through the maze of accrued junk to find his cramped hiding-place beside the attic’s lone circular window.

“A… ‘G?’” Johann murmured to himself while his sensitive fingertips traced carefully over the lid of the box. It must have been carved lovingly by someone long gone, but the shapes and curves of the relief whittled into the dark and heavy oak had been worn away by countless curious fingers touching and caressing the woodworker’s artful design.

The shuffling draw as Johann slid the lid out of its groove was the only sound which broke the air’s thick quiet. Gently setting the panel lid aside, he peered into the box and discovered that it was filled with crinkling purple tissue paper. Johann stood and lifted the box closer to the dirty window to see better while he carefully pulled out the paper.

Inside the box sat a set of seven perfect glass spheres. They glinted quiescently in the dull light of dusk. Each seemed to attain a faint glow as the rosy-fingered light of sunset reached out to shine upon them; the light refracted, and that dusty corner of a forgotten attic exploded into a beautiful rainbow. Dots of seven colors scattered about on the wall and ceiling, and they chased one another across the floor as Johann shifted the box, marveling with heartfelt wonder.

He tugged aside another sheet of the purple paper to better uncover the spheres and reveal them to the fading daylight. As he did so, the long strand uncurled from its place cushioning the leftmost crimson sphere. Johann’s belly leapt into his throat as that blood-red orb rose inevitably up over the box’s brim, and soared toppling to the floor.

The glass sphere shattered upon the oaken floor like a broken heart.

Johann’s hands trembled as they clutched the box tightly. He stared at the thousand thousand fragments which spread across the floor and mingled with the dust to give it a faintly reddish hue.

“What?” he said as he took a shuffling step back, his foot drawing a line in the grey dust as he did so. “What’s that… red?”

Below, where that precious orb had shattered into its thousand thousand pieces, the rusty dust was beginning to slowly swirl and spiral as if it were tasting and judging the musty air. Just as Johann began to think that the churning mist at his feet was merely a trick of the poor light, it gathered together into one body and burst upward into the air.

A broad, muscular torso formed first as the mist swirled upward into a tight pinnacle. Chest, arms, and belly all expanded into flesh before the mirage’s head inflated. Pearl-like teeth hung sparkling in the quickly-approaching twilight as the newly freed creature grinned queerly at Johann.

“What is your wish, my master?”

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