The dust particles looked like tiny insects, whose wings were sparkling in the afternoon light filtering in through the window. The one that hadn’t been opened in more than thirty years. It would have been almost a beautiful sight had the room not been quite so suffocating.
Walt pushed the door further inwards and felt the dust already begin to irritate the sensitive hairs in his nose. His right hand reached out to the wall beside him, groping for the light switch. When his fingers failed to land on anything but dry wall, he sighed, and half-turned his body around so he could find the damned thing. Click. Walt waited for the room to become clearer, the shadows to form recognisable shapes. Nothing happened. Click. Click.
“Come on,” he thought, letting out a groan.
He’d have to make do with the window light, something he’d already guessed would happen before entering the room. A series of cracks sounded from between the weathered bones in his spine as he twisted back around to scan the room. It looked like one of those typical attic rooms in those American horror movies he used to watch as a child. Now at seventy-two years old, he saw himself as the cowering teenager now, surrendering himself to rapidly approaching death. Walt blinked hard and tried to focus on the shapes around him.
Cardboard boxes piled up, neglected and sagging under the weight of other useless junk. Some old photographs, wooden frames chipped and ugly, stood in one corner. The subject on the first photograph no longer looked fresh and appealing as she had been in her prime years, but decaying and ugly, her beauty stained with the dark light that had been her only admirer over the years.
Walt took some staggered steps into the middle of the room. The floorboards creaked in unison with his aching bones. His eyes landed on a crate under the window, clothes neatly folded within it. The coat lying on top looked the same as it had back then, the threads woven in a dazzling red.
He walked over to it. A few minutes passed as he contemplated how to pull the clothing articles out of the box without popping a hip or slipping a disc. To his left, an old dining chair stood with a box of china plates and cups sitting on its mould-stained cushion. He moved the box and placed it on top of another one and shuffled the chair in front of the coat crate. He winced as he sat down. The chair was surprisingly sturdy and strong under his weight after a long period of disuse.
Leaning forward, he touched the red coat and the memories of her wearing it, red lipstick to match, eyes bright and intelligent, voice young and high-pitched, flowed from the fabric to his mind. It felt soft under his fingertips, like her skin had.
“Stop it, you old fool,” he muttered to himself.
He lifted the coat onto his lap, laying it gently across his legs. The sleeves fell lifeless, reaching towards the floor. But he couldn’t help it.
He saw her, eyes closed, looking so peaceful and angelic. Her red lipstick slightly smeared from their night together, her skin translucent in the moonlight. She had been his favourite. Nancy. Her name came back to him like a familiar tune on the radio.
He coughed to clear the dust that was coating his airways with every breath. The buttons on the coat were no longer that metallic gold that had reflected the flashes of his camera when she’d posed for him. He played with the buttons now, turning them gently. His eyes rested on the large pockets on either side.
He imagined the hands that used to fill them. Delicate, slender fingers, like that of a piano player, ending in perfectly manicured nails in a shade that matched her coat and lipstick perfectly. She was a sight to behold and he’d had to have her. There had been others of course. All beautiful in their own way.
But Nancy’s beauty had an ethereal quality. One that seemed to transcend time. It hadn’t faded from his mind like the others. His fingers raked down the fabric, imagining her body beneath it. There was a dark stain just below the final button. The fabric there was smoother, the fibres pinned down flat by the substance coating it. He touched it and closed his eyes, images exciting the synapses in the part of his brain that had been dormant for years, awaiting a chance to experience that distant rush of adrenaline that it craved.
A sound from outside the window snapped his attention back to the present. A car engine? He stretched his body to peer out the window. The branches of the old oak tree swayed gently in the breeze, leaves twitching. The sunlight that was once golden now coloured the sky with blushed tones of red and pink. Walt swore under his breath as he saw two middle-aged men exit the car, one on either side. The doors slammed shut and they spoke in low voices to one another as they marched towards his front door, hands in deep trench coat pockets. He planted himself back in his chair, cursing his luck. He had planned to have the attic spotless of clothing before their arrival. Realising he didn’t have much time left, he touched the little fold on the coat where the pocket began.
The voice wafted from downstairs along with the creak of his front door. His bones and muscles may have been beginning to falter in his descent towards death, but his hearing was still sharp. He guessed the voice had come from his kitchen. Walt folded four fingers under the pocket hemline and plunged them into the dark.
“Walter, we know you’re here. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”
“There you are, my lovely,’ he smiled, as he felt the cold, smooth edges.
He scooped it out. A plain silver tin, nothing fancy, some slight rust on the top left corner. His fingers fumbled under the edges as he removed the lid, the contents inside rattling noisily. He was momentarily flawed by the sight within, his breath catching. Marbles. Lined up neatly in rows. He plucked his favourite one out from amongst the others and held it between his forefinger and thumb, examining it like a historian would a precious artefact. Azure with flecks of cerulean blue swirling within the translucent sphere. Just like her eyes.
Heavy footfalls on the staircase were now thrumming a dangerous beat. He’d known they were coming of course. That’s why he was here in this room. He’d collected the newspaper thrown onto his back porch just yesterday. The headline was practically an obituary with his name on it. The story about an inquest that had recently been prompted by some hotshot who’d gained a large following in his quest for the truth behind some of America’s greatest cold cases.
Walt rolled the marble in his fingers.
“You sure were a beauty, Nancy,” he murmured.
As the footsteps sounded outside the door now, Walt’s eyes returned to the rest of the marbles. A rich mahogany brown with swirls of butterscotch for Evelyn, a perfect emerald green for Martha, a burst of icy white mixed with baby blues for Jenny, and many others he couldn’t remember the names for. The doorknob rattled, the boots entered.
“Walter, you’re under arrest.”
The officer’s voice was dripping with a superiority complex. One he knew well. Walter twisted in his chair to face the hounds he had managed to evade for so many years, the open tin still in hand. He saw their eyes reflecting the last rays of the dying sun, red just like Nancy’s coat, devil-like. A smile spread across his lips as he thought of a colour he hadn’t yet collected. Red.