He came home from work like he did every night: tired and hungry and late. His children are already asleep in their beds when he creaks open the doors of their rooms to check on them and blow silent goodnight kisses in the dark.

He creeps down the hallway to his own room, careful to avoid the squeakiest of the old floorboards. He find his wife there, in bed and asleep, with a book resting on her chest. He smiles and switches off the light.

Making his way back down the hall, he stops beneath the dangling string of the attic door. Pulling it down, he winces as the noisy cracks and groans of its rusted springs reverberate throughout the house.

He stops and worries for a moment that his children might wake at the sound and cry out in fear of a monster skulking toward their bedrooms – but only for a moment. They hadn’t been frightened of monsters in years.

The wooden ladder scrapes against the hallway floor and comes to rest, snug and secure against ancient grooves worn deep into the floorboards. He climbs the ladder and ascends into the darkness.

As he makes it to the top rung, he reaches out one long arm and fumbles around for the string tied to the lightbulb. He gives it a tug and it flickers to life.

He pulls himself up into the tiny space of the attic and, bending his head low to wind his way through cobwebs and crossbeams, begins to walk.

He passes by the holiday decorations: first Easter, then Christmas, then Thanksgiving and Halloween. He pushes through tinsel and string, brushes past an old set of golf clubs he’s never used but that once belonged to his father, and gently moves aside boxes of old toys his children once loved, but had long ago forgotten.

He makes his way to the very back of the attic, into a tiny corner where the dim light from the old bulb can’t reach. It’s cluttered with broken tools and mouse traps, and an old blue tarp. He squeezes himself into the tiny space and sticks his hand under the plastic.

He pulls out an old wooden jewelry box that his mother gave him years ago, when he was younger than his children were when they forgot about their boxes of toys. It is a treasure chest, with a tiny keyhole in the center.

With his back resting against a nearby rafter, he sets the box on his lap, reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a tiny metal key.

He unlocks the box.

The scent of old wood and decay hits his nose as he pulls back the lid. He smiles, closes his eyes, and reaches inside.

He pulls out an old scrap of paper, torn and yellowed by time. There was a name on it once, and some numbers. Both are too faded now to read. He puts it back in the box.

Next, he removes a tattered bit of dull green fabric; frayed at the edges, where it had been cut years before. He holds it between his fingers for a moment, then lifts it to his face. He takes a deep breath, but doesn’t smell anything. He sets it aside.

A toy space shuttle is next. He holds it aloft and makes it fly for second, then returns it to Earth.

An ancient paper airplane crumbles in his hands, and he lets the bits drip down into the box.

He lifts out a photograph, but it’s old and faded, and he’s unable to tell who was in it, or what they were doing. He puts it back.

He pulls out a pocket watch and reads its inscription, “Until the end of time…” It is tarnished and dull, and its hands don’t move when he winds it. He tosses it aside.

Next, he finds a medicine bottle, still half-full. The prescription label is faded and worn, and he can no longer read it. But he remembers what it said, and he remembers the day when his mother didn’t need the medicine anymore. He lets go and lets it fall when he feels the tears returning.

He rummages through the box for hours, pulling out fragments of memories and the lingering remnants of his dreams.

And that’s what they were, tucked away in this tiny corner of the attic where the light couldn’t reach. His dreams.

He never called the girl whose name was on the yellowed bit of paper, but always wished he had.

He’d only worn the Halloween costume his grandmother made him from that green fabric once, but it had smelled like her for years. He wished it still did.

He never became an astronaut or a fighter pilot, and the one time he flew in a plane, he was stuck in an aisle seat, couldn’t see out the window, and was sick in a paper bag. But he still wanted to fly.

He never became a photographer, but he still dreamed of finding beauty in the world.

The girl who’d given him the pocket watch left years ago, but he never stopped believing that forever should have lasted longer.

He never became a doctor or discovered a cure for cancer, but he kept waiting for the news that someone, somewhere had.

And tonight, after he’d pulled out the last of his dreams, he sighed and he smiled, and he added one more before closing the little wooden box and locking it with the tiny metal key he kept in his coat pocket.

He returns the box to the tiny space beneath the old blue tarp and makes his way out of the attic, past the toys and golf clubs and holidays. He tugs again on the long string to click off the light as he makes his way down the ladder.

As the rusted springs groan once more and the attic door closes into the ceiling, he thinks about waking his wife to tell her the bad news, but decides that it can wait until morning, after the kids have left for school.

Eventually, she’ll notice that he hasn’t left for work, and he will tell her.

Then, he’ll start looking for a new dream.

Again.

*******

© 2017, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.