The room was empty. It was illuminated by sharp shafts of moonlight that cut through dirty glass windows. Specks of dust floated through the beams of light. The musky aroma made me cough. I walked slowly toward the rear of the attic, careful not to make a sound. Every few steps the floorboards groaned under the weight of my foot. They could barely be heard over the howling wind, but to me each tread was louder than a pack of elephants trampling a fallen tree. The sound caused my heart to beat harder and harder in my ears until all I could hear was the pounding inside my head.
Could this be it?
My eyes darted quickly over the room. Would a few more steps reveal my prize?
I continued to walk cautiously, trying not to make a sound. I was increasingly aware of the weight of the flashlight in my left hand, though I didn’t dare turn it on. My right hand clenched involuntarily around a rusty old key. The edge of which dug so deep into my skin that it is a wonder I didn’t bleed. I had bled so much for this moment before, what would have been the harm in a few drops more?
Shadows danced in my head and before my eyes–cruel tricks of the moonlight reminding me of the crimes that had last brought me to this empty room.
I was there. Distracted by these specters my feet had carried me to the end of the room without my knowledge. I bent down and examined the swollen floorboards. I ran my hand along each of them slowly until I felt three distinct notches beneath my fingertips. I took the key in my hand and slid the tip into one of the notches. A perfect fit. This was the place. My heart jumped.
Instinctively I looked around, making sure there was no one following me. I had been careful, had I not? I had planned meticulously for years to ensure that I would be alone for this glorious moment, had I not? Had I come this far only to be caught red handed? I had not.
I removed the floorboard with the three notches and a few on either side until there was enough room to remove the metal box hidden beneath. Mustering all the strength I could, I pulled the box up into a ray of light. It was exactly as I had remembered when I first put it here some forty years before. Could it have been that long?
I slid a long silver key into the front of the box. I twisted it slowly until I heard the dull click of the mechanism within, indicating that it had been unlocked. I opened the lid, my heart pounding out of my ears.
The box was empty. Empty? No. In one corner of the box there was a slip of paper, shriveled and yellow with age. With trembling hands I picked up the slip of paper, turned it over and read.
“Thanks a million, Jack,” was all it said.
~ Geoffrey Insch, Morgantown, West Virginia