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I can’t remember why I was up in the attic. I had always hated the place. Sunlight laced its fingers through the patchwork of cobwebs covering the old window, landing in a dusty square on the old wooden floor. I squinted as I attempted to finger my way past ancient, moth-eaten couches. With every breath I took, more dust fluttered down my throat. I smoothed my yellow-pleated dress and adjusted my stockings before continuing to tiptoe along.
I held back a cough. This seemed like a place in which to whisper, or to not speak at all. An eerie energy coursed down my arms and into my fingertips.
The blistering summer air brought a flush to my cheeks. The clicking of my shoes seemed too loud, reverberating off the walls and gnawing at my ears like the whining of an angry mosquito. My breaths came out in ragged puffs. I blinked and looked around for a place to sit, and suddenly a cool glass of yellow lemonade sounded like paradise. I turned back to the staircase but didn’t make it. Instead I collapsed against the wall. Heat crept up beneath the thick lace hemming of my dress like a miserable cloak, and a thin film of sweat beaded on my forehead and hands.
I felt the wall shaking behind me, but didn’t have the energy to look. I shut my heavy eyelids, but before I knew it, I felt the wooden planks splinter behind me, and I spiraled backwards, limbs wildly out of control. For a second I was suspended in air; exhilaration whipped through my body; then fear crashed in and I writhed like a cat, somehow managing to land face-first on a hard wooden floor, skirts blooming up around me like the blossoms of a late-spring daffodil.
My heart beat uncontrollably. I sat up slowly, rubbing my left shoulder. My knees were bruised, and my hands scuffed by the ancient wood, but that was the extent of the damage.
As the dust cleared, I began to recognize the outline of a room. Strange. I had never seen this place before.
The walls had been painted a deep wine-red. The once fine color had since chipped with age, and the dust hung even heavier on the air than before. Otherwise, the room was empty, except for an archaic wrought-iron trunk sitting in the corner of the room. Its lock swung tantalizingly off its hinge.
I felt myself drawn to it like a magnet. Slowly I crept up, bones creaking and aching, until I stood next to the contraption.
It was beautiful. Crafted with exquisite finery, it looked more like a pirate’s chest than an old storage box. Red jewels had been embedded around the edges, and shimmering white crystals spangled the wooden surface like glittering dust. Faces had been carved with exquisite detail—dark faces, with red lips and wide, hungry eyes that seemed to stare into my very soul. The sough of the summer wind seemed distant now, and I felt far away from all ordinary reality. The air hung stagnantly around my shoulders, and a light breeze lifted the ends of my hair.
I opened the box.
Plumes of dust exploded from its depths. I coughed, my eyes stinging painfully, little tears running down my cheeks. When the dust finally—mercifully—cleared, I looked down into the depths of the trunk, trying to shake away a gnawing feeling of uneasiness.
Inside was one framed picture. I lifted it up, surprised at how heavy it was. The frame had once been a rich, fine gold, but now appeared to be a pale, faded yellow. My hands scattered the silty grime that covered the picture’s canvas. I squinted, trying desperately to make sense of what appeared to be random images and colorings.
Near the bottom, the words Willow Family Portrait had been painted in ornate gold script. This is just an old family portrait, I thought, somewhat disappointed.
But as I looked closer, I saw that the people were all dark-skinned. With their high cheekbones and thick red lips, they looked imperial and noble, like African kings and queens.
I looked at my own wrist. My skin had always been tinged a little darker than everyone else’s, but I’d said I was just tanned by the sun. Now I was starting to question everything I’d ever known.
I felt a bizarre tickle on my neck. I looked down to see the ancient locket I was wearing begin to vibrate. I’d struggled to open it so many times, but the hinges never had budged. Now it was sliding open, to reveal a beautiful, chocolate-colored face. Queen Rwanda Willow, it read. 1821-1842.
I turned to the back, and gasped. Orange writing was beginning to appear. This is your Great Grandmother, it read. It is time for you to know the truth.
With a gasp I found myself jerked from where I stood. Colors exploded around me, all the vibrancies of a rainbow. Deep scents of coconut and rain filled the air. The sound of drums and singing echoed around me. Vines curled around my ankles, and the sky was a vibrant, effulgent red. The sun was an eye bleeding golden light.
My feet touched down on a wet rainforest floor.
“Princess!” I heard someone say.
As I opened my eyes, I felt my whole world begin to cave in.