That summer, I used to spend my mornings sleeping in, my evenings roaming around town and the countryside with Will, and my nights in the attic. I had just turned nineteen, and since Mother had gone to be with Grandma because of her illness, I was alone in the house. I had elected to stay home on the excuse of doing my summer work for college, although I never did get around to it until the last week, as was typical of me.
Mother and I lived in a big old house that had seen better days. It was one of those houses you read about in stories—three-storied, made of stone, with plenty of rooms and passageways to get lost in. I was born in that house, and I loved it like a family member. Mother's many-greats-grandfather had been a Duke of some county or another closer to London, and he had bought this large estate as a summer house. Over the years, our family's wealth had all converted into capital. There was a lot of it, so we lived quite easily, if not quite so lavishly as some of the high-class families in town.
Ever since I was a baby, I've had much interest in the past, in my family tree, and in stories. I wanted to find a secret diary from one of my ancestors in the attic and read it, like it happened in books. I wanted to find tales of the grand balls and feasts that must have taken place in this house, to discover epistles about sad romances and happy weddings, to learn about the family's scandals and its prides. I wanted to know everything about everyone that had ever lived in this house like me.
So it was rather surprising to me, when I thought of it at nineteen, that I'd never explored the attic before. Oh, I'd been up there sometimes, but I had never bothered to look through the piles and piles of yellowed papers and books in the corners, or the old chests that looked like they'd held Spanish galleons at some point. So when I came back from college for the summer, and Mother received the telegram about Grandma, I knew I had to finally pursue those childhood dreams in the attic.
The first time I went up there that year, it was after supper. Mother had not bothered to have electric lights installed up there, because we never went there. So I lit the three long candles in one of those old-fashioned candelabras we still kept around and carried it up two flights of stairs. I knocked open the wooden trapdoor in the ceiling with a ladder and climbed with one hand, drenched halfway up by a shower of dust that left my eyes stinging. When I finally got there, it was like everything I'd ever wished for.
I can still remember how beautiful and eerie the attic looked that night by candlelight. I set the candelabra down in a clear space near the trapdoor and began my explorations with a child-like sense of wonder and expectation—and I was not disappointed.
I found old letters by the bundle and a few decaying animal-skin diaries; chests full of old ball gowns, veils and even a few old gold coins. I found old recipes fiercely guarded and official documents in scrolls here and there, and jewelry made of precious stones and portraits of beautiful, regal-looking men and women. I found a white baby's dress, carefully folded up and tied with string to a matching pair of shoes. I found more than I had ever hoped for. It was dawn before I finally realized how sleepy I was and went to bed.
Night after night I came back up there, working my way methodically through the mass of history I encountered. I brushed away cobwebs from books and oiled the hinges on old chests to open them; I even found a flashlight downstairs and brought it up every night to help me read the things I found. I still used the candelabra because it struck me as very romantic and old-fashioned, and it completely went with the mood of what I was doing every night.
I can honestly say there has never been a period of more overall happiness in my life than that summer. I would sleep late and eat heartily; in the evenings I would walk around with Will, getting the exercise I needed as well as spending time with my best friend. Will was a year older than me, and we had been friends practically since I was born, since our mothers were also best friends. His mom loved me like her own daughter and always welcomed me enthusiastically when I came around in the afternoon.
One day, I invited Will to come up to the attic with me. He agreed reluctantly. There was one major difference between me and Will: he believed in ghosts. I dismissed those tales as nonsense, and it was well I did, otherwise I would've been scared half to death by the noises my old house constantly made.
So that night, I gave him the flashlight and told him to follow me. I lit the candles and took them upstairs, knocked open the trapdoor and climbed up as usual, dusting off my jeans once I got there. Will looked up nervously into the darkness. "Are you sure about this, Em?"
"Don't be a baby, Will," I responded absentmindedly, already looking toward my precious piles of papers. "I'm up here every night."
"This is eerie," he commented as he pulled himself up, looking around. "Wow."
I was pleased. I knew Will would appreciate the historical, old-fashioned side of this as much as I did. While I opened yet another chest and pulled out wads of papers, he started looking through some old letters.
"Hey, look what I found," he called in a bit. I was startled. I'd forgotten that I wasn't alone.
I went over to sit by him. He had unwound a piece of twine tying together a bunch of letters, written in a fine, ladylike script, and more underneath in a different hand. "I bet these are love letters."
"They aren't. I read the first one," he said absently, handing it to me. "You know what's funny? The girl's name is Ema, spelled with one M, just like yours."
I read the first one. It was an invitation to a party. "Wow. She's not mentioned in anything else, though. I bet I was named after her—the name was probably passed down."
"Yes—this Willard guy was definitely in your family. He has the same last name as your mother… Wow, this is spooky," he mumbled. "Hold on…"
"You were right. They are love letters."
"Let me guess—he fell for her but she was already engaged."
"No," Will said with a laugh. "She seems to think he's really annoying, actually. But he's not giving up."
We went through the pile of letters together. Once, I squeaked, "She's falling in love with him!" and he looked at me weirdly. I was too engrossed to pay any attention to him, though. "It's so cute!"
Slowly, Ema and Willard ran into bigger complications than his behavior. I was right again—well, almost. She went back to her home. Her father had arranged her engagement with a richer guy in London. The letters slowly grew more open in their expressions of love.
"This is so corny," Will said after a while.
"It's romantic, Will," I said absently.
"Whatever," he answered, his voice slurred. I looked at him. He was half-asleep, his head leaning back against the wall. I rolled my eyes and went back to the letters.
Ema was unwillingly married, Willard distraught. She returned all his letters for fear of being found out and he kept them forever. He never married. I looked at a family tree I had charted out from the various documents, concluded that he had to be the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather, and added him onto the tree carefully.
I began to get up and go back to the chest I'd been looking at. Suddenly, a hand caught the arm I was using to pull myself up. Startled, I found that it was Will sleepily clutching my arm. "Em?"
"Yeah? Do you want to go home?"
"Em… what happened to them?"
"The people in the letters?" When he nodded, I told him.
"They never ended up together," he sighed. I didn't know if he was fully conscious of what he was saying. It was almost one a.m., I realized.
"I didn't know you were such a romantic," I smiled.
"It won't be that way with us, though, right, Em?"
The question caught me off guard. "What?"
He yanked on my arm. I shook him, trying to wake him up.
"Em, stop, I'm awake," he complained. "And I actually did mean what I said."
It sounds like the cheesiest love story ever when I look back on it after so long. It was after we'd read love letters from ancestors with the same names we had, for heaven's sake. And I was still completely unprepared for him to say that. Could it be any more cliché?
But that's just the way it did happen. When I realized what he was trying to get at, I sat down next to him, and I realized I was happy. That this weird, sleepy confession-like thing that Will would look back on the next day and be mortified about for the rest of his life was the best part of the best summer I'd ever had.
You can probably guess what happened after that—I went back to my rummaging and Will fell asleep. He woke up at six in the morning, completely disoriented, and remembering just the vaguest bits of the night before, but the important bits anyway. I was asleep in my room by then, so he went home. When I came around in the evening, we talked about everything important and unimportant…. And finally, when I went up to the attic that night, I took the tragic letters of Ema and Willard down to my room and put them in my bookcase.
I still have them, and I've reread them so many times I know every word. And I'm always glad that it was Will's turn to be right—we didn't end up that way.