The floorboards wheeze with each step, an asthmatic echo through the attic. Grace nudges a flimsy cardboard box with her toe, testing whether it will disintegrate on contact. It remains intact, but sighs a dusty breath. Grace sneezes and wipes her nose with the back of her hand.
Blankets and old, worn clothes sit in lazy piles. Mattress pads are like discarded melon rinds after a picnic. The whole place reminds her of a garbage dump, unused things collected to decompose and die.
Grace remembers coming up here with Ava when they were younger, trading scary stories and contorting their hands like origami figures, trying to cast the best shadow in their imaginary menagerie.
Ava always won. Grace could only manage birds, but Ava could bend her fingers and twine her arms together to make rabbits and camels and once, with the clever integration of tortilla chips, a dragon. It wasn’t cheating, it was damn clever.
Next-door neighbors, best friends, practically sisters. And Grace is the good one in the equation, coming home to take care of an ailing mother: Ava’s.
Grace ignores the fact that she’s being paid as a caretaker, and that coming home was her only option after she flunked out of med school and racked up student loan debt. She’s not a selfless, dutiful pseudo-daughter. She’s broke and desperate.
Grace plops down on the floor and begins her search for an old turntable and vinyl records. It’s to satisfy the latest in a string of odd requests, regret masked as nostalgia. Ava’s mother thinks classic rock and folk music will take her back in time, back to before she was a mother and when she was untethered, unclaimed, unencumbered.
Grace can’t blame her. She wants to go back in time, too.
The first box reveals a stack of photo albums, decorated with Ava’s signature glitter-glued spirals and squiggles. Grace opens the first one, even though she is not supposed to be looking for old photos.
Junior year. There they are, two mismatched twins joined at the hip. Grace’s long, tanned arm thrown over Ava’s shoulder. Short blonde hair, pulled back in a half-braid at her crown. Eyes the color of a foggy morning, deep and inquisitive. Ava’s long, dark hair tumbles down to her slim waist, her hazel eyes looking through the camera, looking into the future and meeting Grace’s eyes. Grace runs her thumb along the curled edge of the photo and blinks back tears. Her father’s sharp words ring out in the attic.
That girl’s trouble, Grace. You won’t get anywhere hanging around with her. She’s a bad influence. I don’t want my daughter turning out like that. You’re on the edge. She’ll push you off if it means you’ll go down with her.
And where’s Ava now? In Reykjavik, where her latest script is being lovingly shaped into a film. She doesn’t have to be there of course; the cruel twist of it is that she can be.
And Grace, good Grace who didn’t run around with boys or smoke pot or sneak sips of Bacardi her senior year, who buckled down and focused and told her best friend she was too busy studying or going to prayer group? She’s in that same attic from her childhood, and those scary stories are her life: sleeping in the same bedroom back home, single and not loving it, caretaker to her best friend’s mom, listening to her own father lament why she isn’t more successful.
Be good, but not too good. Have fun, but not too much. Grace was never good at chemistry or fractions or anything that required her to mix parts of a whole. She couldn’t find that balance.
She’s full-on crying now: loud, angry sobs that make her body shake.
What happened to that girl? The one that stood in the center of every photo and commanded attention? Grace didn’t know if she could ever be the girl she once was, but she hoped so.
“I wish,” she chokes out, and something by the window moves.
Grace looks over and watches something roll itself up from the floor. What she thought was a heap of old clothes was actually a figure sitting on the floor. A figure now in front of her, with dirty, scaly skin and copper eyes peering from under a navy hoodie.
Ava used to tell her the attic was haunted. A cute prank, one that neither believed. Grace would play along, pretend to be scared and nervous.
The figure feels too corporeal, too present to be a ghost. It stands, not floats; shifts, not wavers. And Grace is neither scared nor nervous. Something supernatural is before her, and all she feels is a beautiful lightness like endless possibility, like a balloon being filled with air and sailing up into forever.
“What do you wish?” Its voice sounds like the creaking floorboards she previously ignored.
“How long have you been here?” Grace asks, hoping the figure does not ignore her question.
“I don’t know,” the figure admits. “Maybe forever. Maybe no time at all. It does not matter.”
Maybe Ava wasn’t joking.
“What do you wish?” The figure asks again.
“To go back,” Grace says. “To do it all over again, from junior year until now.”
The figure lingers, considering the request. An appendage reaches out for her and Grace does not hesitate. Nothing claims her here. There is no post to which she can hitch herself. She is grounded entirely in the past.
Grace wraps her hand around what feels like soggy leather, a spongy knob protruding that could have once been the bone in a wrist. Grace nods, the unspoken question hanging in the air between them.
The figure siphons itself into her, a shadow in reverse. Grace feels the tight embrace of something curling itself around her, and the sick, sweet pain of release as she tilts forward and falls into infinity.
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Skyler Smith