Warning: contains bad language.
“Charlotte, I’d like to go into the attic, please.”
“No problem, George,” came the pleasant response. All of her responses were pleasant.
There were a few beeps, followed by a mechanical clicking. George stepped back as the ladder slowly unfolded down. “Thanks, Charlie.”
“You are most welcome, George.”
He climbed the steps, taking care as he ascended. His joints creaked with age. By the time he reached the top, he was puffing, out of breath. “Oh dear, George, old boy…”
“Is something the matter, George?”
“No, nothing Charlie. Just old age.” He nodded to himself. “Just old age…” George smiled, as if half-remembering something lovely. He stepped into the attic. “Charlie?” he asked.
Lights bloomed overhead, illuminating the place. “It is quite dusty up here, George. Would you like me to call a cleaner?”
George waved the comment away. “Naw, I’ll get around to it at some point, Charlotte. Leave it to me.”
“As you wish, George.”
He scanned the room. “Now, where did I…?”
“Can I help you George?”
“Nah, just let me think, Charlie”
“Sorry, George. I’ll let you get on with it.”
“My memory’s not what it used to be. Takes me time to get the old thinker going.”
“I understand George.”
There were boxes stacked as high as the ceiling dotted all around the attic. A few were scattered on the floor, half-opened, their contents spilling out of them as if someone had searched through them and then abandoned their task halfway. There were several old tables and chests of drawers and one old wardrobe. A handful of old chairs accompanied these pieces of furniture. At the far end of the room was a large circular window, through which yellow light spilled. Dust floated through the sunbeams like fairy powder.
George wandered the attic, looking from each stack of boxes to the next. He occasionally peered into one of the opened boxes on the floor. Charlotte sighed, somewhat sadly. He repeated this frequently.
“Maybe over here…”
George pulled one of the chairs across to one of the stacks of boxes that tickled the underside of the ceiling. The heavy thing groaned against the wooden floor as the old man dragged it. Once it was in position, George nodded to himself. Gingerly, he began pulling himself up onto the chair.
“George, please be careful,” said Charlotte.
“I’m fine,” gasped George, as pulled himself upright.
“Quit nagging me, dammit!”
“I’m sorry George. I just worry.”
George’s shoulders sagged. “Yeah, I know. Sorry, Charlie. Didn’t mean to snap.”
“It’s okay, George. But please do watch what you’re doing. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“I’ll be careful, I’ll be careful…”
He reached for the highest box. His arthritic fingers grasped the underside of the carboard, and George pulled. He almost had it, and then his strength momentarily sagged, as it was wont to do. The box slipped out of his feeble grip and dropped to the floor, whereupon its contents scattered in every direction.
“Ah, piss it!”
“George, language!” said Charlotte. George could simultaneously hear the smile and the worry in her voice.
“Sorry, Charlie. Not appropriate in front of a lady, I know.”
George delicately got down from the chair. There was a heart-stopping moment where Charlotte thought he was going to fall over, but then he regained his balance, and she breathed a silent sigh of relief. He hobbled over to the upended crate, and shook his head, muttering under his breath. He winced as he bent down, and began placing things back into the box, examining each item as he did so.
Charlotte watched as George knelt there, mumbling to himself. Or maybe he was talking to her. Sometimes, it was hard to tell. Truth be told, she was worrying what this would do to his knees. She hoped he’d be able to get back up again. Charlotte watched until George paused for a minute. Eventually, he spoke.
“Now this… this I definitely remember.” It wasn’t clear if he was talking to Charlotte or to himself. He lifted something small into the air. Charlotte zoomed in. It looked to be the stub of a ticket. “I was seventeen,” he said, looking up and grinning. The smile made him look ten years younger. “Seventeen! Now that’s a good age. Good age, isn’t it? Seventeen?”
“Seventeen is a good age, George,” agreed Charlotte. “What’s it from?”
George again, looking down at the stub, which he cradled in his hands as if it would crumble and fade if he were too rough with it.
“Best day of my life,” said the old man, voice barely above a whisper. He looked up at Charlotte. “It was our first date, you know?”
George laughed. “Of course, with Jenny. She was the only girl I ever dated.” He snapped his fingers. “I met her, and then BAM! I knew she’d be the only girl I’d want to be with for the rest of my life.”
George squinted at the date, stamped at the top right-hand-side. He whistled through his teeth. “Sixty-seven years ago. Sixty-seven!” He shook his head. “Doesn’t seem right,” he muttered.
“What was the ticket for, George?”
“The Shooting Star,” said George, with reverence. “Scariest goddamn rollercoaster ever built. No matter what anyone says, nothin’ these days can even touch it. The Shooting Star…”
George had sat down on the chair. Charlotte had noticed him wincing as he seated himself, but George seemed unaware. He was entranced by the ticket stub. “It was the first ride of its kind to exit the atmosphere. Did you know?”
“I did, George. It was a remarkable feat of human engineering.”
“It was. It was,” said George, nodding. He seemed to get lost in his own thoughts for a while, before continuing. “I had asked her out during school. I was so scared!” He cackled. “My palms wouldn’t stop sweating, and I couldn’t control the pitch of my voice. It was up and down, up and down, up and down.” George waved his hand around, to emphasise his point.
“But she said yes?” asked Charlotte, eager to get George to keep talking. It was good for him.
“Ha! Yes, she did! Yes, she did!” George smiled. “But I was so certain that she would turn me down. She was gorgeous! And so cool, sophisticated… I was just this awkward guy who shared some of her classes. Why would she care about me? I didn’t think she’d even know who I was! But when I asked her, not knowing where to look, she smiled. Man, she had such a nice smile. Her eyes just lit up, you know?”
“I know, George.”
“They were the darkest brown. Like chocolates. And she’d get these little dimples in her cheeks…” George trailed off. “Where was I, again?”
“You were saying that Jenny said yes to your proposal for a date.”
“Ah, yes!” George slapped his knee and laughed. “She said yes! She even blushed! Her! Jenny! Blushing over me! I tell you, I felt on top of the world as I walked away. I felt like I could conquer the world then, I tell you!”
Looking off into the distance, George paused. Charlotte pushed him on. “And then what happened, George?”
“Well, that was a Tuesday, and our date was for the Friday. I skipped classes for the rest of the week, as I was petrified we’d bump into each other and she’d cancel the date! So then Friday came… and it was magical. Just… magical.” George grinned and leant back into the chair. “We met at the park. I was too afraid to meet her parents, you understand?”
“I understand, George. It can be quite a nerve-wracking experience.”
“It certainly can be! Well, we met at the park, and the stars were already out. The lights from the rides cast a beautiful glow over everything, and she was just the prettiest thing I had ever seen.”
“And you went straight to the rollercoaster? The Shooting Star?”
“Gosh, no! Truth be told, I was petrified of that damn thing! Had never ridden it before that night. I just wanted to look brave in front of my Jenny.” George paused. “Well, she wasn’t my Jenny then. Not yet, anyway.”
“So, what did you do?”
“We walked around, talking. About nothing in particular. Books. Movies. School. Exams. The future. I tried to make it seem like I had everything figured out, university, careers… I didn’t know a damn thing! I just wanted to look impressive… adult. We did all the little games, you know? The ones where you fire lasers at the space aliens, and if you hit enough o’ them you get some sweets. Probably seems a bit racist now, but that’s how it was then.”
“A tad racist, George. But they were different times. Before humans mastered intergalactic travel.”
“True, true.” George watched the dust floating through the golden shaft of light, which had shifted considerably since he had begun the arduous climb to the attic. “I won her some candyfloss. I think she could have probably won some herself – she was definitely a better shot than me, as I later found out – but I guess she didn’t want to embarrass me. She always thought about those kinds of things. Sweet woman.”
“And then you went on the ride?”
“Haha, yes! Although I was completely terrified!”
“But you wanted to look brave, correct?”
George looked up, surprised. “Exactly! She was scared to go on The Shooting Star, so I had to make it seem as if I wasn’t scared of anything. Well, I managed to convince her that it’d be a good idea. And she said, ‘George, are you sure it’s safe?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, we bought a couple of tickets,” the old man lifted the ticket stub, to show Charlie, “and got in line.”
George looked at Charlotte. “Well, there we were, waiting in line. She was pestering and fussing. Absolutely scared witless. I felt a little bad, then. I didn’t want to force her on to the ride if she really didn’t want to do it. So, I said to her, ‘Look, Jenny. If you don’t want to go on the Shooter, we don’t have to. But it’ll be fine, because I’m right here and I won’t let anything happen to you.’”
“And what did Jenny say to that?” asked Charlie.
“Well, she didn’t say a thing! She just looked up at me with those big, chocolatey eyes. And then she held my hand. Grabbed it, actually. And she held so tight. I tell you, I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
“Did you actually suffer from a myocardial infarction at the age of seventeen?”
“Oh, no… That was a turn of phrase, wasn’t it?”
“Come again, dear?”
“Never mind, George. So, back to your story. Jenny was holding your hand, and you were waiting in line for The Shooting Star.”
“Right! Right. So, Jenny grabs my hand, and looks up at me, and I knew she was going to give it a go. Never backed down from anything, that woman. So, it comes to our turn, and the guy at the ticket stand – couldn’t have been more than a year older than us – says, ‘Now’s your chance to turn away, if you wanna.’ Well I looked down at Jenny, and she shook her head furiously. So, he leads us over to the seats, buckles us in, and tells us to enjoy the ride. Then he steps back and presses the button, and the bubble dome seals around us, and the ride starts moving. Y’know, clickety-clack, clickety-clack?”
“I know, George.”
“And all this time, Jenny, bless her, hasn’t let go of my hand. She’s still gripping it, hard. And of course, I don’t mind. I’m probably just as scared as she is! And I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the nicest thing I have ever held.’ So, clickety-clack, the ride starts moving upwards. Once we’re in position, it stops. And this big, boomin’ voice comes on over the intercom.” George began to imitate the voice. “’THREE. TWO. ONE. WE HAVE LIFTOFF!’ And pow! We went rocketing up into the sky! Through the sky! Beyond the sky! I swore my stomach remained there back on earth at the rate we shot off! I could feel my heart in my throat! And Jenny—” George chuckled, “Jenny is clutching my hand so hard, her knuckles were white! I glanced over at her, worried, but she was smiling. Her eyes were wide, and she was smiling. And then we burst through, and we were among the stars.”
George took a deep breath. Charlie noted that the smile hadn’t left his lips the entire time he had been reciting the story. She let him take a break, and revel in the memory. “You know, back with the old tech, you could only stay out there without a suit for ten, twenty seconds or so.”
“Of course, the technology for prolonged exposure would come shortly after.”
“Right, right. But those few seconds…” He gasped and shook his head. “It felt like an eternity. Just Jenny and me, suspended in the stars. Her hand in mine. And it was silent. Just, silence. For those few seconds.” He grinned and looked at Charlie. “And that was when I knew.”
“That was when you knew what, George?” she asked, curious.
“That she was the girl for me, of course!” George said, matter-of-factly.
“Oh, of course. Of course, George.” He could hear her smile again.
“It takes me back, y’know, Charlotte?” He had been sat there for some time now, and Charlotte was worried about him getting back down the attic steps whilst tired. He got tired quicker and quicker these days.
“I know, George. I know.” Charlotte considered the question for a split-second, and then asked. “Will you keep searching, George? Perhaps you’ll remember what it is you’re looking for, this time.”
George’s eyes glazed over. “Looking for—what was I looking for? Was I looking for something?” The old man looked at his surroundings. He seemed lost.
Charlotte sighed. “Nothing George. Never mind. Just me being silly.”
George nodded, but he didn’t seem sure of anything.
“Why don’t we go back downstairs? I’ll pop the kettle on, and we can have a nice cup of tea.”
George smiled. “Now there’s a plan, Charlotte. There’s a plan!”
The old man slowly descended the stairs with care, joints creaking. Once she had watched him reach the floor safely, Charlotte gently raised the stairs. It always made her nervous, whenever he climbed up there. At the same time, in the kitchen, she filled the kettle with water and began to boil it.
With loving, robotic eyes, the A.I. that lived in the walls of the house watched as George pottered around the kitchen, getting two mugs and placing a tea bag in each, as he always did. He had done so for sixty-four years, and it was a hard habit to break.
George muttered to himself, smiling and shaking his head, as he pulled the sugar from the overhead cupboard. “Seventeen…” His voice was filled with awe. And with love.
1st February 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest