Dusty cardboard boxes loomed over me in the attic of my late grandparents’ house. With a sigh I grabbed the nearest one and opened it. I hoped for treasure and instead found moth-eaten, ancient-looking nightgowns. A growl rumbled in my throat.
This was useless. How did my mom ever expect me to find anything up here?
I kicked the box down the steps.
“Watch it!” Mom’s good-natured voice, tinged with amusement, called up from below. “You nearly decapitated me.”
“At least then I wouldn’t have to go through this shit,” I muttered under my breath.
I trudged the length of the attic, nudging box after box with my foot. They probably all had stupid things in them. My grandma couldn’t even pack away her clothes right. Everything else was probably ruined, too.
Dust motes danced in the weak stream of sunlight coming from the small window at the far end of the room. The dust tickled my nose and I sneezed. Wiping my nose on the back of my arm, I moved closer to the window.
The outer pane of glass was cracked. The spiderwebbed pattern broke my view of the yard into little slivers that almost made a complete picture. My baby brother played in the yard with my dad. All the work left to us women, as usual for my family.
Anger coursed through me and I kicked the nearest box as hard as I could. Jewelry skittered across the floor from the newly split cardboard. Shiny fake jewels and cheap gold caught the dim light and gleamed. A pale silver ring rolled out and stopped at my feet. I crouched down and touched it.
I woke up in a pool of sweat, my mind sluggish, my skin hot and taut. My sheets were bunched around me and I shivered. I pushed back the covers and tried to stand, but my legs gave out. With a crash, I fell to the floor. Mom came running in.
“Oh, baby.” She held my arm and helped me back into bed. “Just lie down and rest.”
“Bathroom,” I gasped. She helped me to the bathroom. My legs shook violently from the effort and I shivered uncontrollably in the cold air. Mom changed my sheets while I did my business.
When I was done, I looked at myself in the mirror. Greasy hair plastered to my skin. Dark circles under my eyes. Haggard and sickly. I brought my hand up to push my hair back. The ring was on my pinky finger.
I didn’t remember putting the ring on. The last thing I remembered was touching it, and then I woke up at home.
I pulled the ring off and left it on the counter. After washing my hands, Mom helped me stagger back to bed where I fell into a deep sleep.
My head was clear the next time I woke up. And I wasn’t soaked and shivering, which was an improvement. I sat up and swung my feet to the floor. Taking a deep breath, I tested my weight. They felt solid under me and I made it to the bathroom on my own this time.
The ring still sat on the counter where I left it. I didn’t touch it. Something was off about that thing.
Mom came in with a breakfast tray. Scrambled eggs and ginger ale. Yum.
She helped me get comfortable and sat on the edge of my bed while I ate.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?”
“Better,” I said. Raising the fork to my mouth was tiring. “Tired. How long have I been sick?”
“Only a few days. Probably that bug that’s been going around.” She smoothed my hair back and smiled. Memories of the ring flashed in my mind. I wasn’t sure I believed her. “Just keep resting and you’ll be better in no time.” By the time I was done eating, I was ready to go back to sleep.
I dreamed about a room. Dark. Walls with peeling paint. A small, barred window with missing glass. A single chair sitting in the middle. The chair had a metal frame and a ripped vinyl cushion. I didn’t want to go near it.
A man entered the room. I didn’t know how because there were no doors, but one minute he wasn’t there, and then… he was.
I wasn’t even sure that “man” was the right description for him. He felt male, but he was more smudgy black smoke than man.
“I want my property back,” he said.
This is just a dream, I thought.
“Is it?” he asked. I was confused. Maybe I’d said that out loud?
Yes, I thought, careful this time not to say it out loud.
“If you say so,” he said. “Give me the ring.”
Or what, I thought.
He didn’t answer. Instead, spiders swarmed out of a crack in the corner of the room. My skin crawled just looking at them.
Maybe that’s where he came from, I thought before my blood ran cold. I hated spiders. My heart raced, sending shards of ice through my veins.
I woke up in pain but my first thought was: How am I going to get that ring into my dream?
The ring sat on the counter, pale silver against the dark countertop. I was afraid to touch it, but I wouldn’t have been able to say why. It seemed to have a life of its own and I was quite looking forward to being rid of it. If only I could figure out how. I slipped it into a small velvet bag without touching it and put it in my pocket.
Like other moments in my life when I was faced with a problem I couldn’t solve on my own, I went to the library. I was on the tail end of whatever this sickness was, but I needed to figure this problem out. Mom agreed to let me go if I promised to take it easy and call her the first moment I started feeling tired.
I holed up in the fairy tale section, scouring the books for stories about magic rings and dreams. After a couple hours, my eyes burned and my hands were dry and I was no closer to finding a solution. It was no use. I slammed the book shut and pushed it away from me. I propped my head up, hands pressed to my eyes.
A shadow loomed over me.
“Do you need some help?” His voice was smudged smoke and creeping things that crawl from dark corners. I didn’t need to look at him to know him.
Staring at the table, I reached deep into my pocket and pulled out the velvet bag. I held it out to the side and then it was gone.
“You have no idea what you possessed and gave to me so freely.” Faint laughter met my ears.
When I turned my head to say something to him, I was alone except for a sinking feeling that I’d done something very wrong.