There had been a massive set of bookcases in her grandparents’ home for as long as she could remember.
As a toddler and small child, she had clambered up the shelves, breathing deeply of the good wood smells, the old varnish, the sweet tang of the books, and a little bit of dust.
As a teen she had perused the spines, finding new ideas and new worlds to distract her from the pains of adolescence.
Now she was an adult, and as unloaded the books into boxes, she mused on how her pains were different. Emptying this house after her grandparents’ deaths was one of the most painful experiences she’d ever had.
Placing another handful of books in an open box, she sighed as she stared up at the massive cases. Solid enough to support a huge collection of books, as well as the gymnastics of a 6-year-old, she realized she was going to need help to move them. Probably professional help.
I bet grandfather mounted them to the wall, she thought as she gave one side a little shake to feel how heavy they were.
The bookcase moved.
She felt a little vertigo for a moment, and thought she imagined it. When her head cleared she pushed it again. Again, it moved.
Taking a deep breath, with both hands she pulled.
The bookcase swung away from the wall like a door, sliding smoothly and almost noiselessly, stopping when it reached a half-full box.
Staring at the bookcase with her mouth slightly open, she almost missed the small door in the wall. There was no handle, and it lay flush with the wall.
She got on her knees, running her hands along its outlines, her imagination racing.
Like the door in “Alice in Wonderland.”
Like the door in that weird movie with John Malkovich.
Don’t be silly, it is probably a crawlspace for the furnace system or something.
She got a small flashlight and Swiss army knife from her purse and studied the door. Without a handle, there was no obvious way to open it. She ran the light over the seams of the opening and then saw the answer.
There was a spot that was more worn than the area around it. She poked a finger at the spot, and the door popped open.
Like the door in that New Orleans vampire novel.
It was not an encouraging thought as she shined the light behind the door and saw that she was partially right.
It was a crawlspace. But it was not for the furnace system.
Her grandparents had been quite ordinary.
Their home was modest, and they had lived in it almost their entire marriage, first renting and later buying the home from their landlord.
They had raised two children to adulthood and hosted a small group of grandchildren on a regular basis until they had grown up as well.
The only thing that had been peculiar in their lives was not their life, but their deaths. They had both died on the same day, within an hour of each other.
That coincidence, at the end of otherwise unremarkable lives, seemed to be just that.
There had been nothing that hinted at what she found in the crawlspace.
She set the flashlight on the floor and put the Swiss army knife in her pocket. Going to one of the open boxes, she retrieved a dictionary that in happier days had sat on its own lectern-like table on one side of the bookcases. Six inches thick, it would serve as an excellent door stop.
Carefully propping the door open with the dictionary, picked up the flashlight and crawled through the door.
The floor was the same pine planks that were in the library, but they had not been as carefully cared for and polished. They were covered with dust, but not as much as she expected, and the tracks left by her knees as she crawled in left a dull shine that promised easy cleaning later.
The walls were also the same as those in the library – smooth painted plaster with few cracks or flakes. She wondered how the plasterers worked with precision in such a small space.
The paint looked strange, though, like it was mottled.
Mold? she shuddered, thinking of the face masks she included in her cleaning supplies. She looked more closely at the wall, ready to make a hasty retreat.
It was not mold.
It was writing.
Words neatly written in her grandmother’s handwriting, starting on the right wall next to the door, circling around the back of the crawl space, ending on the the wall behind her.
“Dear Tiffany …” the writing started.
She nearly dropped the flashlight. Her chest felt tight, her eyes blurred, and she scrambled backwards through the door into the library, breathing raggedly.
It was a while before she went back in.
She fixed tea with shaking hands, wondering if she had imagined the writing with her name. Maybe there was mold or some other noxious substance that made her see things.
When she finished the tea, she started collecting items, as if getting ready for an expedition.
She got a face mask from the cleaning supplies, as well as bleach wipes, and tucked her hair up into a baseball cap.
The Swiss army knife was still in her pocket. She added her camera phone and a plastic zip bag so that she could take a sample of the mold if necessary.
She found a high-powered battery flashlight in a closet to use as a lantern so that she would have free use of both hands.
Then she was ready.
She moved the half-full box of books out of the way so that the bookcase could swing as wide as possible, allowing for the free flow of air, and then used the box of books to hold the bookcase open.
With the mask secure, she ducked her head in and crawled forward.
Avoiding the walls with her eyes, she set up the flashlight on the floor so that there was maximum light in the space.
Then she allowed herself to look again.
“Dear Tiffany …”
Flooded with grief and excitement, she started reading.
I have always known that you would be the one to find this space and read these words.
There are many things I need to explain to you, but the most important is how much your grandfather and I loved you, and how rich and good our life was with you and with all our family. We would not have changed anything.
I know you’re probably shocked by finding these words, so let me get the most difficult part out of the way first.
I was not who you thought I was. I was not the orphaned daughter of immigrants who died during the Great Depression.
In fact, when you read this, my parents will not have yet been born.
I was a time traveler.
More accurately, I was chrono-historian, researching events of the 20th century. It was supposed to only last for six months, then I was to return to my time. Instead, I met your grandfather, fell in love, and arranged to stay in the 20th century as his wife.
I worked very hard to not take advantage of my historical fore-knowledge for personal gain, or to make major changes to the timeline. But I did allow myself to take advantage of some knowledge, such as knowing you would be the one to find this letter.
There are things that I must ask you to do for me.
First, you must sell this house. If you or any other family are planning to live here, make different plans. There will be a terrible earthquake here in the future, many will die, and this neighborhood will be destroyed. That’s all I can tell you about it and I ask you to please protect yourself from that.
Second, you must keep the bookcases. They use a kind of mag-lev technology that makes them easy to move – the only technological advantage I allowed myself so that I could access this crawlspace. It is technology that is not yet available, and you must insure that it is not accidentally discovered.
Thirdly, you must destroy this letter. I know you are saddened by our deaths and you may be tempted to keep this important part of us intact, but the knowledge is too dangerous. Paint it, cover it, make it disappear. Please do that for me.
Finally, and I know this is going to be the hardest request, you must not tell anyone about this, not even our family. Some will not believe you, some will believe you delusional, and no good will come from either. I ask you to do this to protect you.
I know you have a million questions, dearest Tiffany, and I can only answer a few of them.
But the most important question is if your grandfather knew of my true history. He did. Even as his parents scolded him for marrying the penniless orphan child of immigrants, he loved the mystery and excitement of his love from the future.
He respected the importance of keeping silent and so all my stories were safe with him. He even did not object when I arranged to die on the same day as his death so that I would not have to live without him.
I wish you a good life full of love, Tiffany. Know that we loved you deeply. And thank you.
All my love,
Tears were running down her face as she crawled back out into the library, this room so full of memories of her grandparents.
She had thought the grief of losing them was a terrible pain, but the letter had made it worse. She had not only lost their company and the memories they had shared, but now she realized she had lost learning about them, their histories and the details of their lives.
The magnitude of it was devastating. And Grandmother Rose had guessed correctly, the idea of destroying her letter was appalling to Tiffany. But as her mind rebelled at losing this newly-discovered facet of her grandparents’ lives, her heart knew she would do what her grandmother asked.
Her crying slowed, her mind calmed. She reached for the tissues she had thrown into the box of cleaning supplies, suspecting she would need them. She had been right.
This was inspired by a writing prompt to describe in detail the setting of a secret crawlspace.