Copyright is held by the author.

JOHANNA SOFTLY blew the dust off the box, then wiped it with her sleeve, leaving white striations behind. She hadn’t come across the object before, even though she’d explored the attic many times, and over numerous decades.

She’d spent all of her days at the top of the Victorian house. She found the attic offered peace and tranquillity — a safe place. And it had been full of surprises, not least of which Al, the old man who’d showed up a month ago.

He made daily trips to the attic, bringing with him the earthy scent of tobacco and — somewhat less pleasing to the senses — the aroma of recently fried kippers.

Sure enough, Johanna knew Al stood behind her now. Before her nose had picked up on the smell of fried fish, she’d already heard his footsteps as he’d attempted to climb the attic stairs without her noticing. She stayed perfectly still, pretending to examine the box in her hands, her back turned to the doorway. It amused him so to make her jump.

“Boo,” he said.

Johanna let out a small and high-pitched, albeit fake, scream.

“Cripes, that never gets old.” Al’s raspy voice indicated the indulgence of too many cigarettes accompanied, perhaps, by an abundance of liquor as well. “How have you been, Johanna?”

She turned around and smiled. “Splendid, thank you, Al. And you?”

“Never better. Keeping busy, as usual.”

Johanna wondered what an old man like Al did to keep busy but she didn’t like to ask. Prying was most unladylike.

“I see you found it.” Al said.

She looked down, realizing how much her grip had tightened. The pine box was roughly the size of an encyclopaedia, but felt significantly lighter. It had turned dark orange from the passage of time and the rusty-red hinges must have lost their shine long ago.

“So, are you going to open it?” Al rubbed his chin and smiled. “I haven’t got all day.”

“Why, yes, you have,” Johanna wanted to say then thought better of it. Impertinence wasn’t becoming. Besides, she thought Al was lucky to be old. After all, she hadn’t aged a day in the 60 years she’d been in the attic, nor would she, she presumed, in the next 60 either.

Johanna let her hands glide over the smooth surface of the box. “I haven’t seen this before, have I?”

Al shook his head.

She looked at him. “But you wanted me to find it?”

His smile revealed browning teeth and made his face crinkle up like a sheet of crêpe paper.

“Aye,” he said, smoothing down his green woollen cardigan. “I thought it was time.”


“Time for you to know who you are.”

“We’ve talked about this, Al,” Johanna said. “I’ve already told you, many times. I don’t need to know.”

“Everybody needs to know,” Al said quietly. “Everybody.”

She looked at him, remained silent for a long while. “But what if I’m not ready?” she said finally. “Not knowing is comfortable. I’m used to not having memories. What if I don’t like what comes back?”

“But you’ve been here for so long,” Al said. “You said so yesterday. You have to find out, Johanna. And,” he paused, “I might not be here to help you for much longer.”

“Excuse me?” While she hadn’t had the pleasure of his company for long, Johanna had become fond of the old man. She’d miss him if he left, she realized. Yes, she’d miss him quite substantially. “Al, are you moving out? Leaving the house?”

Al coughed and tapped his chest with his fist. “Not voluntarily.” He smiled and cleared his throat. “Saw the doc this morning. Says my lungs are shot. I’ll be lucky to live another six months. Anyway.” He held up a hand before she could respond, and pointed at the box again. “Open it.”

Johanna took a deep breath. Trying hard to ignore the tremble in her fingers, she lifted the lid and peered inside.

A black and white photograph caught her eye first. A picture of a man with a baby in his arms. Just like the box, the photograph had an orange tinge around its corners, but the man’s unmistakably proud grin beamed at her.

The fog in Johanna’s brain seemed to shift the tiniest fraction of an inch, revealing a glimpse of something so old and distant, it had almost been forgotten entirely.

“I know this gentleman.” Johanna squeezed her eyes shut as a memory fluttered through her brain, softer than the wings of a butterfly. Remembering things — anything — took so much effort.

“James. . .” Her fingertip traced the man’s face. “No, wait. J . . . Jo . . . John,” she said to Al who was biting his thumbnail, watching her. “Yes, that’s it. His name’s John. He was . . . my goodness, Al, he was my husband.”

Al nodded, smiled encouragingly at her, seemingly willing her to continue the journey her mind had begun to explore.

“I . . . I remember that day,” Johanna said. “We had a picnic in the garden . . . and . . . and we played croquet. I think I used to enjoy a game of croquet.”

“You’re doing so well,” Al said, and took a step towards her. He gestured to the box. “See if the other things help.”

Johanna gently picked up a cardboard star, covered in silver garland and decorated with splodges of red and green paint.

“I remember this too,” she whispered. “I think . . . I think my son made it at school for Christmas.” She smiled. “Yes, I’m sure of it. And every year we put it on the top of the tree. Every single year until . . . until . . . Oh, Al, I don’t know. Where did you find these things?”

“Look in the box,” Al said. “One last time.”

Johanna slowly pulled out another black and white photograph. A young boy in short pants, a white shirt and a flat-cap. His grin toothy and his eyes bright. She turned it over to read the inscription.

“First day of school, 1947.” Her gaze shifted to Al. “Wait a moment. Al, is this you?”

“It is,” Al took another step towards her.

Johanna frowned. “But what does this have to do with me?”

Al swallowed and she watched as he hesitated before saying, “Mother chose that outfit for me. She was so proud.” His chuckle echoed around the attic. “Asked me to spin around for her over and over again.”

Johanna felt shreds of memories beginning to attach themselves to one another, fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Her eyes darted around the attic, taking in the faded, grubby cardboard boxes she’d looked through before, but never properly seen.

The one in the far corner, a box Al had heaved upstairs after he’d moved into the apartment below, contained a collection of novels — Dickens, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Next to it he’d put an old tea crate that held a smaller box with a long, flowing, white lace wedding dress inside, carefully wrapped in silk paper. She’d mused about trying the dress on, but a feeling of sadness enveloped her whenever she touched it, so she’d let it be.

Let it be. That’s what she’d done with her memories when she’d woken up — in a manner of speaking — at the bottom of the stairs, unable to recall who or where she was, or how she’d got there. When unfamiliar voices from the floor below became louder, she’d swiftly climbed the stairs and hidden in the attic until all the commotion had passed. Not once had she ventured back down to the unfamiliar surroundings. Whatever for?

The occupants of the house, a man and a young boy, left a few months later, and never came back. Over the years, Johanna had heard other couples and families come and go. Children were born, engagements and weddings celebrated, the dead mourned.

She’d never revealed herself. Not to anyone. Not until Al had carried the old boxes up to the attic, humming Hush Little Baby. She’d felt . . . she wasn’t sure what she’d felt. Loneliness? Some kind of solace? A connection? Yes, she decided, some kind of connection. Although for the life of her, or, she’d giggled at her own joke, for the death of her, she really couldn’t fathom why she felt anything for the old man at all.

But Al hadn’t shown any surprise when she’d murmured “Good morning.” He’d listened to her explain she had no idea who she was. It felt good to finally talk to someone and Al had listened so intently.

“I lived in this house once,” he’d said as they sat on the old tea chest. “And always swore I would again one day. Took me 60 years but I finally made it back. I’ll see my days out here,” he said. “Yep. That’s what I reckon.”

He stared at her closely now. Searching her eyes with his. “Are you all right?”

She gently touched the items in the pine box, the photographs and the star, memories seeping into her fingertips.

“I remember.” She swallowed. “Those books. The dress. They’re . . . mine.”

Al nodded silently.

“I fell, Al,” Johanna said after a long moment. “I fell on those rickety old stairs, didn’t I?”

Al nodded again, his eyes glistening. “Yes,” he whispered. “Such a terrible accident. All those years ago.” He held his arms out. “Please, don’t be scared. Don’t leave again. Please.”

“You were nine,” Johanna said. “You were still a child.” She whispered, “My child.”

“Yes,” Al said, tears flowing freely over the deep lines in his cheeks. “Yes, Mother. Welcome home.”

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  1. Nice twist that I didn’t see coming.

  2. A little bit Norman Bates.
    A little bit Dorian Gray.
    A little bit incomplete.

  3. Hannah, I love what you’ve done with this! Love the details. I wouldn’t have said it was Norman Bates, or Dorian Gray, or incomplete — but this is what fiction does, once it’s out in the world. It gives different things to different people.

  4. Great story. Great twist. Well done.

  5. Brought tears to my eyes, Hannah, even though I predicted the ending, so well done!!!

  6. Hi Hannah,
    I love the way it kept me guessing until the very end. I enjoyed it so much I read it twice.

  7. For me, the element of surprise is far less important than how the characters linger in my imagination. I’m left thinking that Al’s life got harder after his mother died; that somehow, this might be closure for both of them and maybe, just maybe, everyone can move on. With just a few words, you’ve painted two interesting characters and one very interesting relationship. So I say, nicely done.

  8. Well done, Hannah. Very sweet.

  9. What an interesting point of view shift!
    Well done.

  10. An ending that provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion, whether predictable or not, I find infinitely preferable to one with a contrived twist which seems like an artifice. Give me characters I can root for, empathize with and identify with, and in whom I can invest emotional currency, then I can call it a satisfying read and glad that I took the time to finish it. Though I must admit that sometimes an ending as predictable as a Leafs hockey game does fall flat and leave me deflated. Sigh.

  11. I agree Michael. In general, I do not like twist endings. I like surprising endings, as in the character rose above his weaknesses or fell below his virtues. I have been guilty of writing a surprised ending because it makes me feel clever. To me the best fiction is all about character. Character is story and story is character!

  12. Amen, Brothers….!!
    Twist endings, to me, is a fast way to get out of a story, be it good or bad, that the writer is trying to escape from. Why: No specific outline, tiredness, boredom, or a lack of imagination to breath some life into a few more paragraphs?
    Most good writing instructors steer you away from this fault line. I know that Prof. Guy Allen (U of T) did. He used to give us hell for doing it.

  13. I agree with Michael, Frank and my esteemed JAZZ regarding the ending of ‘The Attic’ but with some reservations. The ‘twist ending’ is a period literary device and we have de Maupassant to thank for it. But when done well, it’s entertaining and delightfully Belle-Epoque and sometimes I need, even crave, this kind of literary confection (pronounced cliché). And make no mistake: to read ‘La Parure’ is to be under the spell of a master at the top of his form; along with O. Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi’ I don’t think there’s a finer demonstration of what the French call ‘le torsion fin’. But these stories haven’t become classics just because of their endings. They are moving studies of heartbreak, human frailty, the consequences of vanity, the oftentimes contrary and reliably baffling nature of love and they are played out by characters who rise from the pages and interact with us as real people: for me, the best of them are unforgettable — who hasn’t met someone like the self-absorbed Mathilde Loisel or the lovelorn ‘Young Jim’ Dillingham?

    My issue with ‘The Attic’ isn’t about the ending — it wasn’t skillfully enough handled to prevent me from seeing it coming in any case. Rather, the story failed to convince for psychological reasons. While it’s to the author’s credit to tackle this tricky interpersonal dynamic, the relationship between Al and Johanna simply lacks the emotional shading and necessary heft to make me believe in them as people, and to care about them as characters. They are thinly drawn and insubstantial when they need to be full-bodied and complex. Dialogue like ‘Yep. That’s what I reckon.’ probably doesn’t help. (Yeah, I know, it’s works with Cormac McCarthy but we’re not talking about ‘Blood Meridian’, here.) There was one place I had trouble with credibility. ‘Over the years, Johanna had heard other couples…She never revealed herself. Not to anyone.’ Not once? In all those years? C’mon, even dear old Miss Havisham had to admit the obnoxious Mr. Jaggers once or twice between solar eclipses.

    That said, it’s not my intention to put down or discourage the author: Ms. McKinnon is a writer of talent and I thought her “Waiting” in the latest CL anthology one of the best in the selection; it’s a beautiful and poignant story, delicately and sensitively told. I look forward to reading more from her.

    And JAZZ, I think your prof was wrong to give you hell for writing a twist ending. Go ahead and write one! I’ve written a couple myself, simply to familiarize myself with this arcane literary devise, and though I no longer like these stories, I don’t regret writing them. It’s a skill, like anything else, and when it comes to creating fiction, you and I both know you can’t have enough. Now go tell that your prof!

  14. Charles,
    First off, I’m not about to debate the cons of the any arcane literary device with Prof. Allen. The man Is an icon in his field and rightly so.

    I totally agree with your comments on O.Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” an extraordinary and finely crafted story with a poignant and memorable ending. I doubt if the entire alumni of CommuterLit, locked together in a cell, Muse at the ready, could come anywhere close to creating such tension.

    However, and this is where I agree entirely with Frank, I do think that within the boundaries of Flash Fiction characters can, and must, resonate with the reader. If the twist shows up with no particular foreshadowing or appears to be written hastily on a post-it note, the readers feel like they have fallen over a cliff — or been pushed.

    But, Charles, it was lovely to hear from you again. I enjoy your comments immensely.

  15. JAZZ,
    Agreed. That was what I meant when I said those stories were classics above and beyond any twist ending. And sure, if the twist is just a deus ex machina, you do feel cheated. So I agree with you and Frank.

    Thanks for the compliment and keep sustaining us with your humour (especially the biting kind) and your provocative insights. You are needed.

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