The chest sat like an unwanted memory in the far left corner of Jack’s attic. Daniel wondered if Jack even remembered it was there. Jack never went up to the attic and Daniel knew he wasn’t supposed to either. But today Jack was napping on the couch, an ice hockey game droning in the background, and Daniel, bored beyond belief, had gotten up from his perch at the small desk Jack had bought for him and crept from the room, up the stairs and into the forbidden place.
Looking around, once he got there, he wondered why Jack had told him never to come up here. To Daniel’s newly down-sized 5 year old mind and eyes, it looked like a mini-archeologist’s paradise. Dust covered pretty much everything though and Daniel had to cover his nose with his sleeve covered hand to stifle the sneeze that erupted as the breeze from the opening door caused the dust motes to rise. He turned in a slow circle, cataloguing all the abandoned treasures mentally – a mountain bike hanging from a chain, an old worn out rocking chair, its bottom sagging, piles of outdated video cassettes, sundry electrical appliances obviously cast aside in favor of the updated ones Jack now owned, a heap of magazines (National Geographic, Daniel could see, which made him grin), and in the far left corner, a wooden chest, a raggedy teddy bear resting almost sleepily against the side. The chest’s hasp was rusty and there was no key but it was unlocked so Daniel wandered over to it anyway and tentatively opened the lid.
There were photographs inside, in albums and lying loosely on top of the pile of papers and books that filled the bottom of the chest. Daniel picked one up and looked at it intently. It was a photo of a very young Jack, a smiling woman holding onto his arm and looking up at him with pride. Jack was holding a tiny newborn baby in his arms. Daniel knew the baby had to be Charlie and he put the picture back gently, almost reverently. A piece of paper fluttered free and Daniel lifted it. It looked like some sort of official form and as he unfolded it, Daniel froze in horror. The heading read, “IN THE DEATH OF CHARLES TYLER O’NEILL”. Angry at himself now for disturbing such private memories, he dropped the paper as if he’d been burned, reached for the top of the chest and began to close it.
“What the hell are you doing up here?”
Jack’s voice was loud and angry and Daniel jumped guiltily, his small fingers slipping from the edge of the chest and sending the top crashing down. Too late he tried to pull his other hand out of the way but the sudden crushing pain that shot through the back of his hand and jolted almost all the way up to his shoulder told him he hadn’t made it. He yelped with the shock of it, pulling his hand free, feeling the edge of the top graze his knuckles.
In the next moment Jack was at his side, dropping down into a crouch next to him. “Let me see,” Jack said brusquely though his grip was gentle as he took Daniel’s small hand into his own. He felt over the back of it, pressing down intermittently and looking up sharply when Daniel winced and bit down on his lip. “I think it’s just bruised,” he said after a few moments. “Let’s go down and put some ice on it.”
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said, “I know I’m not supposed to be up here but you were asleep and I was bored…” He trailed off. “I shouldn’t have been looking through your things. I thought maybe it had toys or something in it.”
“Just memories, some good, some bad,” Jack replied quietly. He lifted the top of the chest and pulled out the paper on top. “This is something I don’t want to see, something I don’t want anyone else to see. It’s proof he’s gone, that he’s never coming back and there are times when I don’t want to know that. Can you understand that?” He sat down next to Daniel and pulled him close against his side. “I’m sorry too, for scaring you. Sorry you got hurt.”
Daniel summoned his shadowy memories of the time before he’d become a child again, of the woman he’d loved and lost what seemed a lifetime ago, of his parents. “I do understand,” he said. “I can still remember sometimes what it felt like… to lose someone forever and not want to believe it.”
Jack nodded. “I know you do.” He hugged Daniel gently. “Let’s go take care of this hand downstairs.”
Daniel let Jack pull him to his feet then into his arms and onto his hip. He buried his head against Jack’s neck. “You’re not still mad at me, are you?” he whispered.
“No. I’m thinking we should maybe talk sometime. About memories and what they mean to us and which ones we want to share. Okay?” Jack gave him a little jiggle till Daniel lifted his head and nodded.
Jack bent down and picked up the bear, handing it to Daniel as he carried him toward the door. “I think this guy could use a friend though. He’s been sitting up here alone too long.”
Daniel held the bear close then sneezed loudly.
“Yep, he’s been up here way too long,” Jack added with a grin. “First aid then bathtime for you both and then we’ll talk.”