Rell had mixed feelings about the attic.
On the one hand, he was sure there were more interesting things up there than any place beneath it. The lean little house seemed to enjoy the come and go of boarders, seeming always infinitely friendly to strangers, and stand-offish to anyone who had lived under its roof for more than half a year. His father and him had lived there forever, sharing the biggest room on the ground floor, but no one else seemed to last long in the four rooms above them. Every time they left, they left things behind, and his father boxed, bagged, or otherwise packed them up, and shoved them up into the attic, just in case they came back.
On the other hand, the attic was four stories above ground, higher than any other house on the block, and the windows showed it clearly. The trapdoor with the ladder beneath it always seemed like just a giant hole in the floor when he got up above it. On the other side of the attic, there really was a hole, broken in some interesting event that Rell had never gotten the full story on. Standing in the attic, Rell was always aware of the holes. Without meaning to, he would glance at one of them, and suddenly imagine the bone-numbing sensation of falling through one of them. His stomach twisted, and he wondered what kind of brain he was keeping that so easily slipped on that kind of thought.
He always forced himself to think of what he’d gone up there for, find it, and hurry back down with his hands tight on the ladder.
But if he stayed a little longer, who knew what he might find.
When Rell got bored, home alone with his work all shored up for the day, he thought about going up into the attic. He thought about opening boxes and cutting open the ties on the sacks. He thought about spilling things that shone into the dust-scattered daylight.
That day, with his hands tight on the ladder, he realized he must have been something more than bored.
At the top of the ladder, he straightened. He took a careful step away from the trap door. Sliding his tool knife out of his pocket, he glanced at the bags and boxes and crates. He wasn’t sure where to start, or if he’d actually decided to.
He took another hesitant step, and turned in a circle, looking around. When he started to smile, he knew it was over. He was about to look through whatever was up here, finally. His heart picked up a faster, steadier beat. He turned another, faster circle.
“Are you dancing up there?” a woman asked. Her voice was just a little muffled, and definitely coming from the room beneath him.
Rell stopped where he was, hand up, blade out, and caught like a kid after sweets.
“Hello?” the woman called again. “Don’t tell me that was a squirrel.”
Most of her voice was coming up though the hole in the floor, Rell realized. He took three steps toward it. Just enough to see down into the room, and stopped shy of feeling like he might fall. A woman with long, blonde, salt-curled, and salt-stiff hair looked up at him. She still wore a ship’s jacket, and boots shined to pass inspection. Her shirt was already loose at the neck, and her jacket hung comfortably open.
He blinked at her.
She was his cousin, but she hadn’t lived here in a long time.
“Oh,” she said. She blinked, but smiled faster than he did. “Hello, squirrel.”
“What are you doing here?” Rell asked.
Ketrin closed her lips over her teeth, but held onto all of her smile’s curve. She still looked happy, but more like she might clobber him in greeting next. “I missed you, too,” she said. She disappeared for a second, and there was a clack and clunk as she brought a chair back into view. She stepped up on it with one foot, didn’t even put the second down, and jumped up. She caught the hole on the flat of her forearms. Leveraging herself onto the heels of her hands, she pushed up, twisted and sat on the edge.
When Ketrin stood up, she winced. Her smile widened when she saw Rell watching her, and she limped one step forward.
“I’m going to be staying here a while,” she said.
“What happened?” Rell asked.
She shrugged. “I stood in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not an exciting story. Just one you’ll hear a couple dozen times if you ever decide ships are for you.”
Rell looked down at her leg, well hidden under clean, wide breeches. He looked back up, wondering how much tighter her smile could get before she’d let go of it all together. But she was taking a deep breath, letting go of something else, and her smile seemed easier again.
“What are you doing up here?” she asked, so slow, it was obvious she wasn’t waiting on needles for his answer. She already knew.
Sheepishly, he tucked his knife back into his pocket.
“You shouldn’t go through their things,” Ketrin murmured.
“Why not?” Rell asked. He gestured to the whole mass of bags and boxes, stacked against the walls, and horde of dust and forgotten corners.
Ketrin almost laughed, but kept it quiet, then wrestled her grin back down to a smile. She tilted her head to look at him.
“For the same reason we don’t rifle through the belongings of the dead,” she said. “Without warning, they might come back to life.”