I climb hand over hand on the dusty rungs of the ladder, leading to the attic. Micah’s hands find my hips and he steadies me as I push the trap door open. The door creaks quietly on the hinges and hits the wooden floor. I hoist myself up into the humid air and my hair frizzes on the spot. He climbs up while I fumble in the dark for a lamp. I hear his footsteps behind me and a moment later his arms wrap around my middle. I should be used to it now. The heat of his bare forearms against my exposed stomach, but I still shiver even though it’s at least ninety degrees up here. He twirls me around and I put my arms around his neck. “Forget the light,” He whispers, tilting me backwards. He leans in, his hot breath on my neck, but a rotten floor board snaps under our joint weight. I fall backwards knocking over a small table. Something metal falls out of the box that had been resting on the table. “Sorry,” His husky voice echoes in the dark. The floor groans dangerously as the silhouette of his linebacker body squats down near the table to pick up what’s fallen.
“Lizzie! Lizzie is that you up there?” We both freeze as my grandfather’s brisk voice booms through the house.
“If he’s just coming home I can sneak you out through the back door.” I try to find his eyes in the dark, but I already know what they’ll say. I hate that I have to conceal my relationship with him. But he hates it even more. I grab his arm, which doesn’t do any good for me. He’s 150 pounds of pure muscle. I yank him a little harder, and he complies. But before we can climb down, my grandfather is blocking the path.
His look says everything. I’m in a lot of trouble. “Who is this Elizabeth? What are you doing up here with him?”
Taking too long to respond will make him believe it’s a lie. Although what I’m about to say isn’t exactly the truth.
He speaks before I can say anything though, “You should go young man.” He pauses, a look that could pass as anger flashes through his eyes. But almost as quickly as it appears, it’s gone. “Now.”
Micah doesn’t say anything as he scurries down the ladder. A staring contest with my grandpa begins until the front door closes. I turn on my heel to pick up what’s fallen off of the table. A light flicks on and I startle. I didn’t even hear him come up the ladder. “I told you to stay away from him, Elizabeth.”
I roll my eyes and bend down to pick up the box that was knocked down. Weathered yellowing papers are sprawled across the floor. I picked them up and stacked them. “We'll talk about this later.” He climbs down quietly. I turn over the box that had fallen and a metal wax stamp rolls out. I’ve never seen one of these before and pick it up in awe. The inscription says, Master J. That’s...weird. I could be misreading it though, since the print is so small. Tucking it into the pockets of my shorts to examine later I turn over more papers.
“Let’s go Elizabeth!” Grandpa yells.
“Coming!” I snap back. What’s his problem? I grab the box from where it fell and stomp as loudly as I can back to my room, slamming the door behind me. I know it’s childish but Grandpa really doesn’t need to be such a jerk all the time. I sit at my desk and fan the papers out. The writing is sloppy calligraphy. Ink smudged from years of heat. I stand up, looking over the desk for an aerial view. One of the sheets in the back, about the size of an index card, stands out. It’s crisp wheat brown material clashing against the rest of the old crumbled ones.
I do hereby certify that Elijah M. Brown, a 5 foot 10 negro man, dark complexion with scars running across his left cheek, is hereof, a free man and citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Master J
I drop the paper in shock. It floats to the desk, rustling the rest of the stack. Buying freedom? Masters? Property? This can’t be right. I pick up the biggest sheet. It’s a poster. The nail hole in the top confirms that this was once posted...to help catch slaves.
My hands form fists at my side. I need answers.
“Grandpa!” I yell, blood boiling. A pot crashes to the floor. I snatch the papers up and run into the kitchen. “What is this?” I ask, slamming the items on the island. He stands up from picking the pot off the floor and turns around. His eyes travel to where my hands are resting. Without a word he turns back around. “Nothing? Are you just going to ignore me now? Explain this to me!” The silence is louder than any words he could toss at me. It stretches through the house. The house he probably didn’t buy. The house he probably doesn’t deserve. The house a slave owner probably once resided in.
“It’s nothing for you to be worried about.” His voice is icy.
I scoff. “Nothing to be worried about huh?” I wave the sheets angrily, “This is apart of family history and stupid white supremacy.”
He visibly cringes when I say that.
I pause for a moment. Everything starts to lock into place so fast I get a headache.
“Is- wait. Why don’t you want me to be with Micah?”
He tenses. I’ve never gotten a straight answer with this question. But I’m not giving up today.
“Look. At. Me.” I punctuate every word with a step towards him. He glares at me for only a split second, but I read the message loud and clear. Just like a nod is a universal gesture for hi, or a heart for love. His gaze had White Supremacist written all over it.