Why did you send me here? What was it you needed me to see?
Then I noticed something beneath one of the beds and knelt down to look. It was an old suitcase.
Was this yours? Is it what you carried onto the train the last time you saw your mother and father, as your first life was slipping away?
I pulled it out and fumbled with its tattered leather straps. It opened easily—but except for a family of dead beetles, it was empty.
I felt empty, too, and strangely heavy, like the planet was spinning too fast, heating up gravity, pulling me toward the floor. Suddenly exhausted, I sat on the bed—his bed, maybe—and for reasons I can’t quite explain, I stretched out on those filthy sheets and stared at the ceiling.
What did you think about, lying here at night? Did you have nightmares, too?
I began to cry.
When your parents died, did you know it? Could you feel them go?
I cried harder. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I couldn’t stop myself, so I thought about all the bad things and I fed it and fed it until I was crying so hard I had to gasp for breath between sobs. I thought about how my great-grandparents had starved to death. I thought about their wasted bodies being fed to incinerators because people they didn’t know hated them. I thought about how the children who lived in this house had been burned up and blown apart because a pilot who didn’t care pushed a button. I thought about how my grandfather’s family had been taken from him, and how because of that my dad grew up feeling like he didn’t have a dad, and now I had acute stress and nightmares and was sitting alone in a falling-down house and crying hot, stupid tears all over my shirt. All because of a seventy-year-old hurt that had somehow been passed down to me like some poisonous heirloom, and monsters I couldn’t fight because they were all dead, beyond killing or punishing or any kind of reckoning. At least my grandfather had been able to join the army and go fight them. What could I do?
When it was over, my head was pounding. I closed my eyes and pushed my knuckles in to stop them from hurting, if only for a moment, and when I finally released the pressure and opened them again, a miraculous change had come over the room: There was a single ray of sun shining through the window. I got up, went to the cracked glass, and saw that it was both raining and shining outside—a bit of meteorological weirdness whose name no one can seem to agree on. My mom, I kid you not, refers to it as “orphans’ tears.” Then I remembered what Ricky says about it—“the Devil’s beatin’ his wife!”—and I laughed and felt a little better.
Then, in the patch of quickly fading sun that fell across the room, I noticed something I hadn’t before. It was a trunk—or the edge of one, at least—poking out from under the second bed. I went over and peeled back the bed sheet that hid most of it from view.
It was a big old steamer trunk latched with a giant rusting padlock. It couldn’t possibly be empty, I thought. You don’t lock an empty trunk. Open me! it fairly seemed to cry out. I am full of secrets!
I grabbed it by the sides and pulled. It didn’t move. I pulled again, harder, but it wouldn’t give an inch. I wasn’t sure if it was just that heavy, or if generations of accumulated moisture and dust had somehow fused it to the floor. I stood up and kicked it a few times, which seemed to jar things loose, and then I managed to move it by pulling on one side at a time, shimmying it forward the way you might move a stove or a fridge, until it had come out all the way from under the bed, leaving a trail of parenthetical scars in the floor. I yanked on the padlock, but despite a thick encrustation of rust it seemed rock solid. I briefly considered searching for a key—it had to be here somewhere—but I could’ve wasted hours looking, and the lock was so decayed that I wondered if the key would even work anymore. My only option was to break it.
Looking around for something that might do the job, I found a busted chair in one of the other rooms. I pried off a leg and went to town on the lock, raising the leg over my head like an executioner and bringing it down as hard as I could, over and over, until the leg itself finally broke and I was left holding a splintered stump. I scanned the room for something stronger and quickly spotted a loose railing on the bed frame. After a few stomping kicks, it clattered to the floor. I wedged one end through the lock and pulled the other end backward. Nothing happened.
I hung on it with all my weight, lifting my feet off the floor like I was doing a pull-up with the rail. The trunk creaked a little, but that was it.
I started to get mad. I kicked the trunk and pulled on that rail with every bit of my strength, the veins bulging out of my neck, yelling, Open god damn you, open you stupid trunk! Finally my frustration and anger had an object: If I couldn’t make my dead grandfather give up his secrets, I would damn well pry the secrets out of this old trunk. And then the rail slipped and I crashed to the floor and got the wind knocked out of me.
I lay there and stared at the ceiling, catching my breath. The orphans’ tears had ended and now it was just plain old raining outside, harder than ever. I thought about going back to town for a sledgehammer or a hacksaw—but that would only raise questions I didn’t feel like answering.
Then I had a brilliant idea. If I could find a way to break the trunk, I wouldn’t have to worry about the lock at all. And what force would be stronger than me and my admittedly underdeveloped upper-body muscles wailing on the trunk with random tools? Gravity. I was, after all, on the second floor of the house, and while I didn’t think there was any way I could lift the trunk high enough to get it through a window, the rail along the top of the staircase landing had long ago collapsed. All I had to do was drag the trunk down the hall and push it over. Whether its contents would survive the impact was another issue—but at least I’d find out what was inside.
I hunkered down behind the trunk and began pushing it toward the hall. After a few inches its metal feet dug into the soft floor and it ground stubbornly to a halt. Undeterred, I moved around to the other side, gripped the padlock with both hands and pulled backward. To my great surprise it moved two or three feet in one go. It wasn’t a particularly dignified way of working—this squatting, butt-scooting motion I had to repeat over and over, each slide of the trunk accompanied by an ear-splitting metal-on-wood shriek—but before long I’d gotten it out of the room and was dragging it, foot by foot, doorway by doorway, toward the landing. I lost myself in the echoing rhythm of it, working up a manly lather of sweat in the process.