Carlos discovered the bloody knife under a pile of shoes in the back of his grandmother's closet. The glint of the metal caught his eye in the dim light given off by the single bulb in the closet. He shifted aside a pair of orthopaedic walking shoes and a single, musty slipper and flinched back when he saw the red-stained blade. The blood was still wet.
The dark-haired boy jumped back and winced as his head slammed into the wall of the closet. The overpowering scent of mothballs and old shoes and the faintest metallic tang of blood filled his nose and made his eyes water. He stood there frozen for a minute, breathing heavily, staring at dull sheen on the knife.
No one had been home when his mother had dropped him off to stay for the night, but that wasn't unusual. Gee-ma and her new "friend" Ernie often went for walks together in the woods nearby. He'd let himself in and, inquisitive boy that he was, immediately began poking around in cupboards and drawers for interesting artefacts and knick-knacks and doodads and thingamabobs. Gee-ma was always telling him not to go rummaging through other people's property, but that only made him all the more curious.
His heart racing, Carlos edged back out of the closet and into his grandmother's bedroom. It was dark and still, the heavy curtains blocking out almost all of the noonday sun outside and casting the room into an eerie gloom. Carlos spied a tiny dark patch on the carpet and cautiously made his way over. Even in the murky darkness of the room, Carlos could tell it was blood. He spotted another patch, and another, a damp trail of deep red dots on the carpet that led all the way to the back door. Carlos reached up, fumbled with the latch, and slid the door open.
It was a bright day outside, but there were storm clouds inching across the sky toward him. A wide lawn stretched out in front of Carlos down to the edge of the nearby woods. The leafy canopy shrouded the trees in a dappled darkness, making every twisted branch and gnarled root almost seem alive, and dangerous. Carlos had never been into the forest, never quite worked up the courage. He squinted at the shadows between the trees, but couldn't make out any movement. He looked down, and spied more patches of red; vibrant crimson blotches on the verdant grass. They were leading away from the cottage, and getting larger as they neared the woods.
Horrible images flashed through the young boy's mind. A knife, covered in blood. A trail of blood leading into the forest. Gee-ma and Ernie both gone. Ernie, out there with Gee-ma. Gee-ma, bleeding, alone in the forest. Ernie, on his way back out of the forest by himself.
Carlos, here, alone, in the cottage. Ernie, walking up the wide lawn toward him, his shirt stained red. Carlos yelped at his own imagination and slammed the door, plunging the little cottage back into its gloomy darkness.
Carlos had never liked Ernie. He'd never liked any of the men that his Gee-ma had been involved with since his grandfather had died so many years ago. Of course, Carlos had been born many years after his grandfather had passed away, but he still didn't like any of these men, either the ones he'd met or the ones he'd heard about and seen pictures of. Something about it seemed insulting to his grandfather's memory. Gee-ma said that "Ernie could help support her in her old age", that he was a successful businessman and that "his money could help the family", but Carlos didn't care. He just didn't like him.
The boy reached up and scrabbled at the latch, his hands shaking, and after a few seconds a loud click told him he'd managed to get the door locked. He stumbled away, took a deep breath and dashed around the house, fumbling with the locks on the other doors and windows. In short order, he had the little cottage completely sealed.
He stood in the dark, heart beating rapidly in his chest, and struggled to remember what his mother had told him to do if there were scary people about. Finally, with a gasp of realisation, he dashed to the old corded phone next to the bowl of hard candy on the table and dialled the number. The woman's voice on the other end was soothing but urgent as Carlos, almost whimpering and tripping over his words, explained what he'd seen, and what Ernie had done to his poor, sweet Gee-ma. The woman told him that the police were on their way and that he should hide until they arrived. She asked if he could take the phone with him. He told her he couldn't. She said he needed to stay quiet.
Then she was gone, and Carlos was alone again. The sudden silence from the absence of the woman's voice made Carlos' every breath seem like thunder. He put the phone back as softly as he could and inched his way carefully backward. His foot bumped a wooden chair and the loud scrape on the floor made Carlos' heart leap into his throat. He had to be quiet.
There was a thump on the wall outside. Carlos started; an image flashed through his mind of Ernie outside, his face and clothes stained a deep red with Gee-ma's blood, trying to break his way in. Carlos sprinted for the darkest corner of the room and wedged himself between a mildewy wall and a large, dust-covered couch, pushing himself back into the corner. He sat there, breathing heavily and hugging his knees, as there was another thump on the wall.
A few tears streamed down Carlos' face as he sat in the dark corner, trying to push himself further into the corner, trying to will himself through the wall. Another thump shook the little cottage and Carlos let the tears come, putting all his effort into not sobbing, not wailing, making no noise at all. The narrow beams of bright sunlight streaming through the gaps in the curtains dimmed as the storm arrived in force and rain began to pelt the cottage. Another thump, then another, faster this time. The wind howled and wailed outside and the thumps intensified; rapid, panicked hammering on the walls.
Carlos could barely see through the tears, could barely hear his own breathing over the wailing wind and the sound of his own heartbeat. As the storm strengthened, so did the thumps, until they were almost constant. Carlos sat in the dark corner, hunkering down, wishing to be invisible, wishing for his Mama or his Gee-ma to come and save him.
A flash of lightning lit up the little cottage. Carlos held his ears and forced himself not to cry out as thunder rattled the walls. When it subsided, Carlos looked up and saw something swinging above him. He squinted in the darkness and recognized the pull-cord of the attic door.
Carlos had only ever been in the attic once; it was dark and dusty and full of cobwebs. But he knew it was a good place to hide; better than sitting in a dark corner of the main room. Another flash of lightning blazed outside and Carlos moved. He sprinted across the room and leapt, but his fingertips just brushed the cord and he couldn't grab hold. Thunder roared around the cottage. Carlos scrunched up his eyes and covered his ears, more hot tears running down his face. When the thunder was gone he leapt again. He got his hand around the cord but couldn't keep hold, just batting the cord away as he fell. Outside, the thumps on the wall kept coming. Carlos launched himself into the air one more time, and this time he caught it. Both hands tight on the cord, Carlos hung in the air for a second, his light frame not enough to open the door by itself. He wrenched with his whole body a few times, swinging it downward and the door finally creaked open. Carlos dropped to the floor as the door descended the rest of the way under its own weight and a ladder crashed to the ground.
Carlos wasted no time and scrabbled up the ladder into the dusty darkness of the attic. He hauled at the door once he reached the top and, straining, he managed to get it to swing closed, the ladder retracting automatically. He sat there in the dark, panting, for a few seconds. He waited, but no-one came rushing up after him; Ernie did not suddenly wrench open the door and charge up the ladder, knife in hand. Lightning flashed outside and lit up the entire attic through the circular window at the far end. Carlos saw everything in the attic in that one flash: old furniture and long-unused luggage, boxes of mementos and keepsakes, all covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. He saw the dark corners suddenly filled with light, and saw no murderers, no psychopaths, no Ernies, crouched in the darkness waiting for him. Carlos knew would be safe up here, or at least safer, until the police arrived.
What drew his attention the most was a large wooden trunk, sitting in the centre of the attic. There was a line of footprints leading toward it in the dust, and another line leading back to the door; they looked fresh. Carlos, ever inquisitive, inched his way over. The thumps were still coming hard and fast from below and the wind still wailed outside. Carlos paused and held his ears as more thunder rattled him to his bones, but his curiosity was stronger than his fear and he pushed on, ignoring the tears on his face.
The trunk was large enough for Carlos to fit in completely and still have room to spare. He fumbled for the latch in the dark, finally flicked it open and heaved the heavy lid up. It was too dark to see anything in the trunk; Carlos dashed away through the dusty attic to where – on his previous and only other visit to the attic – Gee-ma had shown him where she kept the emergency supplies. He rummaged and found an electric lantern, turned it on, and dashed back to the trunk.
Carlos' overwhelming curiosity had all but pushed all the fear out of his body. Somewhere, in some deep recesses of his brain, he knew he should still have been scared and quiet and careful, but the allure of new things to explore and investigate silenced all that. He even ignored the next peal of thunder, too enraptured by his new discovery.
The cold blue light of the lantern showed Carlos a chest full of interesting knick-knacks and pictures and papers. He picked one faded, sepia-toned picture up and gasped. It was his Gee-pa, many, many years before Carlos had been born. He was young, and handsome, in a very nice suit in front of a very nice house. Carlos turned the paper over and struggled through the writing on the back. Charles Hermenez: June 7, 1948 – October 5, 1978.
Carlos smiled sadly at the photo. He knew that his Gee-pa had died soon after his mother had been born; he'd never had a chance to meet him. Carlos grabbed another picture. He'd seen other pictures of this man – Gee-ma's third husband, next to a very fancy car. The writing on the back read Theodore Harrison: August 12, 1952 – September 14, 1995. Another picture: Gee-ma's second husband, Carlos's "step-grandfather," sitting at a large desk in a tall building overlooking a city. Jonathan Carrington, III: February 6, 1930 – February 6, 1987.
The final picture Carlos grabbed was the latest of the group – before Ernie, of course – and the only one Carlos had been alive to meet. Giles Huntington-Smythe: October 8, 1950 – December 21, 2012, was on a boat, smiling and laughing at the camera. Carlos could just make out the boat's name: the Smythe 4.
Carlos placed the pictures aside and looked at the other things in the trunk. He found a marriage certificate for Charles Hermenezand MariaSullivan – Gee-ma, Carlos realized – dated September 2nd, 1973. He found a will, signed by Charles Hermenez. He skimmed it, but he couldn't make out most of the big words. He did see the word "Maria" mentioned quite a few times. It was dated October 4th, 1978.
The attic briefly became as bright as day as more lightning flashed outside, but Carlos ignored it, engrossed in his box of new discoveries. He found a newspaper article announcing the wedding of Maria Hermenez to Theodore Harrison. Stapled to it was another article, dated two years after the first, discussing Theodore Harrison's tragic death in a car accident after the brakes had failed. Next, Carlos found a photo album, commemorating the wedding of Maria Carrington and Giles Huntington-Smythe. Another pair of news articles were under that, one discussing Giles Huntington-Smythe choking to death on a hard candy, the other an interview with a policeman about the "suspicious circumstances" – Carlos tried to sound out the words, but he didn't know what they meant – surrounding Jonathan Carrington's fatal allergic reaction after accidentally being fed walnuts. He pulled out a pile of random items that he had no idea why she kept – a bag of old, moldy candies; a book titled "Rolls Royce Phantom, 1994 Repair Manual"; something called an "Epi-Pen", still in its plastic sleeve.
At the very bottom of the trunk was a battered, leatherbound journal with the words Jonathan Carrington the Third stencilled on the front in gold. Carlos flicked it open and flipped to the last entry. Sounding out the words like his Mama had taught him, he read.
I found my darling Maria's trunk in the attic today, which she claims is full of her past lives, "the ones that have no meaning, now that I found you". She said she just wanted to keep some of the memories around, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with exactly what she chooses to keep. Pictures of her old husbands, sure. But the articles about their deaths? Something about this seems…off. There's something I can't quite put my finger on, but I know something's strange here. I know she doesn't like to argue, or talk about her past; she's a superstitious woman like that. She always tells me that it's a bad omen, that her previous husbands died right after they got into a big argument about her life before they met, and she "couldn't bear to see that happen to me". But I need to talk to her about this, no matter what the consequences. I need to know. I will discuss it with her tomorrow night over dinner.
Carlos didn't really understand anything of what he'd just read. A bunch of articles from the newspaper about things that happened ages ago. Something about Gee-ma's third – or was it fourth? – husband, and needing to talk to her about something, but he didn't know what it was about. Jonathan didn't seem to like these pictures - Carlos couldn't really understand why, they seemed alright, even if he didn't like the people in them. He shrugged. As he closed the book, he noticed the date of the last entry: February 5th, 1987.
Carlos had reached the bottom of the trunk, and he paused. It was empty now, but there was a tiny little hole in the base, just small enough for a finger. He reached in, but there was nothing there. Disappointed, he pulled his finger back, but it caught on the side of the hole. As he pulled, the entire base of the trunk came up with his hand, revealing a secret compartment. Inside it was money – lots of money, stacks and stacks of cash, neatly sorted and organized and bundled. He picked up one bundle and marvelled at it. To him, even three dollars felt like a fortune, but there was more money here than Carlos could count – he didn't know numbers big enough.
He glanced up and noticed the howling and the thumping had finished; the storm had apparently abated. With a sudden rush of fear through his spine, Carlos remembered why he had run to the attic in the first place. The trunk and its wonders forgotten, Carlos dashed to the small circular window and peeked out.
The lawn was a mess, leaves and branches everywhere, tossed about from the force of the storm. A gust of wind tousled the branch of a tree near the cottage; it thumped into a wall downstairs. The red patches on the grass were gone, diluted from the rain. A wet figure was walking out of the forest toward the house. There were deep red stains all along its front.
Carlos' heart caught in his throat as he watched the figure get nearer. He stood stock still, not daring to move, not even daring to breathe, as the figure approached. Finally, it got close enough that Carlos could see who it was.
He leapt back from the window and sprinted for the attic door. He shoved all his weight against it and almost fell as it descended with a crash. He half-tumbled down the ladder and ran for the back door as it opened before him.
"Gee-ma!" he yelled exuberantly.
Gee-ma looked shocked to see her young grandson standing before her. The front of her sweater was stained red, her hands and shoes were caked with dirt and mud, and her entire body was wet from the rain.
"Carlos, sweetie?" she said hesitantly. "What are you doing here?"
"Mama dropped me off a little while ago," he said, and dashed forward to hug her around the legs, heedless of the wet and the stains. "I thought Ernie had done something bad to you and I was so scared and so I hid but now you're here and you're alright so everything's ok!"
"Oh, Carlos, honey, it's alright," she said weakly, patting him lightly on the head. Carlos looked up at her with glee as she looked down and smiled weakly at him. Slowly, she looked up at the little cottage and saw the descended ladder to the attic. She looked back down at him, her eyes widening.
"Carlos, dear, what's that in your hand?"
He pulled back from her, the two of them now sharing matching red stains on their clothes, and looked at his hand. He was still carrying one of the large bundles of cash from the trunk.
"I found it in your memory chest upstairs, Gee-ma!" Carlos said happily. The faint strains of police sirens drifted through on the breeze.
Gee-ma looked down at Carlos with a sad expression in her eyes.
"Oh, my dear, sweet, wonderful Carlos," she said. "What have you done?"