This story is by Didi Portia and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
With their flashlights breaking through the darkness the old door creaked open, letting out the stale scent of mothballs and dust. The attic was large—nothing like they imagined. They imagined beds that they could leap back and forth on with a space between where they could build forts and tell scary stories late into the night. They imagined clean floors and a warm fireplace to keep out the cold December chill.
“This place is disgusting,” said Joss, wiping a spiderweb from her face. With a single finger she wrote her name in the dust of an old bookshelf.
“I bet no one’s been up here in years,” said Jovie, panning his light around piles of boxes and creepy statues. Fine paintings covered in bubble-wrap, exquisite Persian rugs and outdated furniture draped over with sheets filled the entire attic like a museum of rare and unwanted relics. The windows were dirty, letting in just enough sunlight to cast dark, eerie shadows throughout. “Granddad sure was a hoarder, huh Jovie?”
“Maybe he was a serial killer. Maybe he stuffed the bodies in the walls, and maybe the ghosts come out at night, screaming, looking for revenge!”
“You’re ridiculous.” Joss sneered, “Sometimes I wonder if we’re even related. I think you were switched with my real brother at birth. I think your parents didn’t want you so they left you at the hospital after dropping you on your head. Just my luck you ended up beside me.”
“You’re just jealous because I’m the brains and the looks.”
“Whatever, Jovie.” Careful not to trip over boxes, piles of magazines and old books Joss made her way about an assortment of dusty shelves, antique lamps, sofas, tall chairs and other strange but equally interesting pieces. “Jovie, you go that way and I’ll go this way. Yell out if you find anything of value.”
“How do I know if something’s valuable or not?”
“If it looks old and in good condition…it’s probably worth a bunch.”
“This feels wrong.”
“Like, we’re robbing a helpless old man on his deathbed?”
“Well…this is all mom’s now—the estate, his collection of old cars… It’s in his will.”
“So does that mean we’re going to be rich?”
“No. It means that mom’s going to be rich.”
“Well, it’s about time the old coot gave her something other than a broken heart.”
“I never understood how they could just abandon mom at the orphanage when she was seven.” They wandered off on their own, among boxes, papers and spooky looking items. At the far end of the enormous attic, past a slew of overhanging sheets that resembled hunched over ghosts mingling about dusty shelves and rustic armoires, something caught Joss’ attention. She let out a gasp.
Standing before a large faded chalkboard filled with scribbles, notes and blueprints she saw that the wall itself was filled top-to-bottom with a series of newspaper-clippings and articles with stunning headlines. Images of expensive looking statues, paintings and priceless relics gave her a sense of the old man. It took a moment for it to sink in—the mystery of grandma and granddad: why they left mother at such a young age, why they wrote letters from undisclosed locations and how it was possible for them to put her through college. “Jovie, look at this!”
“What is it?”
“It’s… Well, it’s difficult to explain. Just get over here!”
“You better not be messing with me, Joss!”
“Just get over here!”
Together, silently marvelling at the mystery behind it all—the late night phone calls from Grandma and Granddad from Madrid, Tokyo, Venice or New York City—it made sense now why they never came to visit, or why they only sent money or valuable gifts—gifts which they were not allowed to keep. “Joss, is this…what I think it is?”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know. What do you think we should do?”
“You’re the oldest, you should know!”
“Yeah, by like…five minutes!”
Caught up in a mix of impulse and wonder, Jovie focused on a particular newspaper-clipping, “‘Art Heist At The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.’” With a deep breath he kept on, “‘A pair of robbers dressed as Police Officers, gained entry to the Museum Tuesday evening just after closing. Stating they were responding to an emergency call they were allowed entry. In moments they took security by gunpoint, handcuffing and gagging them before locking them in the basement overnight.’” Jovie looked at his sister, his eyes wide, his heart pounding in his chest.
Joss leaned in, “This happened in nineteen-ninety. That’s like…twenty-eight-years ago. Keep reading, Jovie.”
“‘The robbers stole thirteen paintings worth an estimated five-hundred-million dollars. The works taken included Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” a self portrait from Vermeer’s “The Concert,” as well as five Edgar Degas’ impressionist works and Edouard Manet’s “Chez Tortoni.” A reward of five-million-dollars by The Gardner Museum is currently being offered for information leading to the recovery of these works.’”
With their flashlights running over the clippings, which ranged from Italian to German to Spanish and French, it became clear at once, the secrecy behind their Grandparents. “Do you think mom knew all this, Joss?”
“You mean, that her parents were thieves?”
“Not just thieves, but…extremely successful thieves.”
“I’m not sure.”
“That would explain her bitterness toward them.”
“I always wondered why they were never a part of our lives. Why they never came to see us.”
“They seemed to know how to find mom no matter where we moved, though.”
“Yeah. And that last letter was more than two years ago. And now…this!”
“Doesn’t it tick you off that Grandma only came to see us once—when she was dying?”
“It does, but…seeing all this…it’s like…”
“Like they were protecting us all along.”
“Mom has had nothing but stress, heartache, bills and bad luck all her life. First it was dad in the car accident. And then Lucky, with Leukemia. Then Grandma… And now Granddad…on his deathbed—downstairs. We’re running out of relatives quickly, huh?”
“Makes you wonder…whether its plain old bad luck, or…heck, maybe we’re cursed.”
“Dad, just when he got that big promotion. Lucky just when he got a College Football Scholarship right out of high school. Grandma… Granddad… And that’s it. We have no more relatives.”
“And now, we’ll probably end up taking the fall. We’ll probably end up doing a million years in prison.”
“And then…we’ll die there. Jeez, when does it end?” Joss sighed.
Off to the far left, sitting square upon a small end table, was an envelope. Jovie took it up. “Joss, it’s for Mom!”
“Here, let me see that.”
“You’re going to open it?”
“I’m just going to take a peek.” She opened it…
“‘Dear Jewel… You don’t know this, but we have been keeping an eye on you your entire life. Remember Paul the gardener, Susa the maid…Enrique, the Family Physician…Sister Donna…all very close friends of ours. We love you very much. But…we had to leave. Things are the way they are…simply because they must be. Your Father and I…have the most wonderful story, hidden among these shelves, beneath the drapes and locked away in every little corner of the attic. A story of passion and true love, but more importantly…a story of Art and priceless yearnings.
We won’t lie to you when we say that…you have a very important decision to make…
One: You can call “Don the Jeweller” at the number below. When he answers you are to say, “Scarlett Giant.” From there you will receive a set of instructions. This method will fetch you upwards of sixty-million dollars, paid through various fronts, bonds and properties which are already in place. This offer will stand for the duration of your life and the lives of your children. Don and his people are very careful and very patient. This method, however lucrative, will place you amidst a conspiracy of crime which ranks the top lists of both the FBI and Interpol.’”
“‘The second option is this: there are several Museums and Private Collectors who will pay dearly to see their pieces returned in good condition. The details of many cash rewards being offered lie here amidst the pages. This should fetch you upwards of twenty-million-dollars, foregoing the criminal aspect of the ongoing investigations, thus clearing your name from any involvement. There are diaries and strict paper-trails as well as ongoing evidence that will absolve you of any interaction, should the blame somehow become focused on you. We have all the information on St. Mary’s Orphanage as well as a clear and precise paper-trail from the IRS.
“‘Now…as choices go…we leave that up to you.’”
“‘Darling…for leaving you so long ago…in such a callous and abrupt way…and for giving you few answers to your many questions…it is our expressed concern that we find some semblance of redemption, and possibly forgiveness before we pass on.’”
“‘Your loving Mother, Hilary and your adoring Father, Augustus.’”