Bernie waved his hand at the anxious face of his son-in-law. “Go on. Won’t take me a minute to find them.”
“Alright.” Eddie raised both hands in defeat and headed back down the hall.
Bernie waited for him to round the corner before reaching up for the dangling string. The frayed edge tickled the rough skin on his fingers. Tightening his hand around the knot at the end of rope he pulled.
The hatch in the ceiling creaked and groaned. The panel nudged a half inch and then thudded against its swollen sides. Bernie sighed. He let go of the string and rubbed at his quietly throbbing shoulder while he glared up at the stubborn hole that led up to the attic.
Behind him he could hear the rustle of snow pants and the rip of laces being tied. Down the hall brief arguments about mittens, calls to tighten a scarf and jokes about impersonating snowmen drifted.
Bernie sighed again and reached back for the rope. With his grinding shoulder loosened, he gave the panel a harder tug.
After a creak and snap, he was bombarded by a cascade of furry creatures. They bounded down the folded stairs attached to the hatch and bounced off the wrinkles on his upturned face. The stuffed chicken, puppy dogs and zoo of other animals scattered around his fuzzy slippers.
With a shake of his head, Bernie pulled at the folded ladder and rested the end on the dense carpet coating the floor. Gripping the nearest rungs he drew in a quick inhale and took the first step.
The ladder sagged a bit under his weight, more so than he remembered. After an initial groan of protest, it steadied. One by one he climbed until his head popped through the dark square.
Musk and dust floated in the air like pollen in spring. A hint of insulation foam mixed with the scent of dry wood and a lifetime of odds and ends.
At first Bernie could only make out the collapsed card board box. The other half of the menagerie that colored the floor at the base of the ladder filled the sagging container. Bernie shoved it back upright and scouted a spot where he could finish his climb.
Another dangling rope smacked into his head as he braced his hands on his popping knees. He remembered better than to straighten up all the way, even though his back soon let him know what it thought of that idea and the sharply sloping ceiling.
An easier tug on the string clicked on the single 60 watt bulb. The yellowing light struck the square edges, rounded slopes and teetering towers that rose up to the rafters. Turning slowly, Bernie scoured over the mess.
Where had he put them?
Hunching even further, he waddled like a crab down the meandering corridor through the stash, to what his instincts suggested was the most promising corner. He squeezed past an old bookcase with fading sky blue paint and pink daisies, then a dual stack of boxes covered in scratched out Sharpe. As the roof beams brushed against his salty hair, he let out a hefty sigh of satisfaction.
Against the edge of the roof leaned the slats and rungs of the pair of sleds. The ropes through the forward rudders drooped and there was enough dust to look like snow over each stained panel. The runners were dotted with rust and rattled as he inspected them. The rust and dust couldn’t blot out the solid construction that lasted over years of disuse.
With a grunt at each step, Bernie pulled one after another through the narrow passageway and then down the rickety ladder. Two careful strides had him over fallen animals as he carried the two sleds into the now empty foyer.
Like the toys, the linoleum of the entryway was cluttered in discarded gloves and abandoned ear muffs. Bright snow glowed in the strips of windows to either side of the thick wooden door and filtered on to the disarray. Through the frost rimmed panes Bernie watched the assortment of kids of all ages decked in colorful gear along with a merrily bounding dog, poke in and out between the drifts. Laughter soaked through the glass along with the thuds of well aimed snow balls.
Bernie set both sleds against the door and leaned against it as he chucked off his slippers.
“You found them?”
He glanced at Grace as she padded in from the kitchen. Her weathered hands were cupped around the stubs of candles. The line in her mouth spoke of quiet disapproval.
“Yeah.” Bernie tucked the hem of his corduroys into his wool socks and began tugging on one snow boot after another. “They were behind Jennifer’s bookcase.”
He could feel the frown descending quickly beneath Grace’s dangling bangs without having to look up at his wife. “You’re not going out there?”
“Don’t you remember why we put them up there in the first place?”
“Kids got too big,” said Bernie.
“No, the three of you nearly killed yourselves sliding down that hill.”
Bernie shrugged. He unhooked his down padded coat from the ladened wooden rack on the wall.
“You could break your neck,” continued Grace, “or worse, your hip.”
As he slipped his arms through the soft sleeves, Bernie peered through the glass at the romping out in the snow. He zipped up his jacket.
Turning, he scooped out the wax stubs from the nest of Grace’s crooked fingers. He pecked her peach-fuzzed cheek, hardened by her hard lined lips.
“It’d be worth it.”