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That he was here in Paris both amazed and frightened him. All because he had discovered that cobwebbed leather briefcase hidden behind the ancient rolltop desk in his family’s December-cold attic. It was only hours after his father’s funeral. He hadn’t planned to return to the house. He would leave the bereavement to others, but his sister’s tears prevailed. So, he shook damp hands and stared into eyes as vacant as the words of condolence.

What could they say? His father finally did it. After all the attempts, this one succeeded.

Axel Ayres wasn’t sure why he chose the attic or what he was seeking. Accompanied by the sounds of muffled sympathy from below, he began opening boxes, rifling pages of musty books. The rolltop was bare, and he might have passed by it, but for a stream of sunlight illuminating an ambitious spider’s web anchored to his father’s secrets.

He reached behind the desk and pulled up the case. Dust erupted, settling across his black suit, into his eyes, into his hair. He watched as the elaborate web wobbled and folded over itself, broken from its mooring.

The dark brown case was cracked and tired. He traced a finger across a single word etched across the top, wondering if he could somehow feel its meaning since his eyes could not make it out.

He pressed the case’s two locks.

The first thing he saw was a worn leather journal held together by withered, gray twine. As he opened it, a few brittle pages fell to the desk. Axel inspected the journal ever-so-carefully, turning its pages to discover dates beginning in the early winter of 1944. He sat on a collapsing wicker chair to confront his father’s desperate words.

 

I didn’t realize how much I wanted, maybe needed, to keep writing amid this madness. It seems the only thing I can control, at least when I can calm my trembling hand. It’s impossible to explain what it’s like to be afraid every minute of every day but not to show it. And to know every other guy feels just like me. If any of us showed it, we’d collapse. We’d scare ourselves more than the Krauts can. It’s the land mines. You always know you could step on one. I remember watching two soldiers, trained as mine detectors, literally disappear before us. We couldn’t even find their dog tags. More often, we encounter and sometimes try to save soldiers whose legs and arms were blown off. That scares us more than death.

 

Axel marveled. How immaculate was his father’s writing amid the chaos of war. He wondered if his father knew back then, in his foxhole surrounded by fury, that if he survived, he’d become an editor, write his editorials, publish his newspaper, and find unique solace and order in his pen and typewriter. For that, he did, even as his life unraveled from loss, loneliness, and addiction.

As a child, Axel would sit just outside his father’s very private den, barely prying open the door to take in the muscular aroma of Sir Walter Raleigh’s pipe tobacco and listen to the tapping keys of his father’s ancient, always-loyal Royal. He knew not to disturb him, but during those minutes, he felt as close as he ever would be to his father. Just hearing, smelling, and imagining.

Deeper inside the case, Axel discovered an envelope—unmarked, unstamped, and unsealed. Inside was a single folded sheet of paper, its pure white color belying its apparent age. Addressed to a woman named Violette, it was streaked with passion, yearning, and snippets of self-pity.

From another corner of the briefcase, Axel scooped up a collection of small photographs hidden under an ancient Brownie whose shutter was cracked beyond repair. The black-and-whites, tiny squares with jagged edges, were of Paris. The Seine flowed through in the background, and a young woman stood with her back to the camera, staring into the river’s waters. Then she turned, giving the photographer a delicate but timid smile.

And the Luger. He held it, feeling its smooth wooden grip, mesmerized by its blue-gray pencil barrel. He disengaged the cartridge from its handle and discovered three unspent bullets. He rattled them in his palm, imagining stories about the three no longer there.

He aimed the gun at a cracked mirror leaning against an ancient bureau he remembered from his grandmother’s bedroom. “Bang,” he whispered. “Bang, bang.” As though he was back in the woods behind his home, playing John Payne, not Wayne, with his schoolmates, each refusing to be anyone other than the hero. “Somebody has to die. It’s war.”

As he returned the gun, Axel felt metal. He pulled out three dog tags. One was his father’s. He could make out the last name of another, Raia, but the first name was scratched beyond recognition, as were many of the serial numbers. The last tag was indecipherable.

Deep in the corner of the case, Axel spied a postcard of a corner bistro, its neon La Joconde illuminating a street sign, Rue de La Rochefoucauld. Next to it were photos of the café, one with a smiling couple standing by its entrance. The man seemed a giant, with the woman – the same one by the Seine - nearly lost in his bear hug, her toes dangling off the ground, her hand holding onto a flowered hat.

He carefully placed the unmailed letter to Violette and the photos and postcard in his suit jacket’s pocket before returning the case to its hiding place. Halfway down the stairs, he stopped and raced back to the attic. He retrieved the journal and added it to his collection, then turned to watch the sun recede beyond the lone attic window.

 

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