For years, no one knew what Agata's father did in his attic. He would wake in the morning, eat breakfast with his family (a hardboiled egg, a piece of dry toast, and coffee), and then climb the stairs in their three-story home to begin his work. He would come down at five o'clock, just as the streets around their building off the bustling Rambla district began to liven with commuters.
Years ago, her father had been a professor at Cambridge. He had taught physics and studied stellar phenomena—that's all Agata's mother had ever told her.
They lived on a small street lined with tiny grocery stores that sold sparkling wine and thinly sliced ham that her mother, a vegetarian, never bought. Their home had been in the family for almost a century, and they owned the majority of it, renting out the bottom two floors to tenants and keeping the top two for themselves. The attic was connected to the third floor by a thin spiral staircase, so when her father ordered new computer equipment or office furniture, they had to lift it using a special crane outside the window.
Her father seldom talked about what he did for a living. Even Agata's American mother knew nothing of his work. When asked, she would smile and shrug. "He does research," she'd say. "Special research." Agata's mother, Claire, was used to keeping her husband's work a secret. She taught Agata English and her father taught her Spanish and Catalan. They had never been to the U.S., but they had many friends who visited from abroad.
Agata went to the English Academy in Barcelona and was an only child. Like her father, she kept to herself and read most nights until very late, her room bathed in the warm glow of a small lamp her father bought her. It was shaped like an old passenger train from a very long time ago, and the light poured from its tiny colored-glass windows and through the front headlight. When her father was especially immersed in his work, she rarely saw him and instead heard him creaking about upstairs as he moved from computer to computer, checking printouts and consulting thick, dusty books that came almost daily to the house from the national library.
A week before she had tumbled out of the rock and into Turtle's life, her father began acting strangely. He never came down for breakfast, asking instead for food to be sent up. But he never ate. Breakfast trays would lie at the foot of the steps for most of the day, and when Agata came home, she would bring them down to her mother who would scrape the uneaten food into the garbage.
Her mother said nothing, but the strain in her face was clear. Some afternoons, Agata could hear her mother crying in the kitchen while she was reading on the couch. Going in to see her, Agata would find her sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, her eyes red but a smile on her face.
"What is it, mi cielo?" she would ask. My heaven. That's what her father called her, and sometimes her mother used it too. The sound made Agata shiver a little.
"Daddy's just been busy," she said. "Don't worry. I get worried when he doesn't eat. I made him eat two sandwiches yesterday when you were asleep."
Her father was always very private, but this week was different. The house was far quieter than it ever was, and she hadn't seen her father for days. He didn't usually hide away for so long.
Even when Agata knew her father should have been home, she felt like he was gone. The house was just empty. It was the feeling you got when you knew a television was on somewhere in the house, but this was the opposite—something missing, something turned off.
She would walk through the door and call out to him, but she heard nothing and was too scared to go upstairs to disturb him. So she would eat something—a piece of toast with tomato or some cheese—and wait for him to come down at about four o'clock. He usually did. On the days he didn't come down she felt an icy chill, as if he were well and truly gone, as if his attic was empty and he would never return.
When she came home after school two days before, she knew something was different. The house was still, and the clock in the living room ticked explosively as she listened for her father's footsteps upstairs. Four o'clock came and went and then four thirty. She called up to her father and left a message, her voice echoing in the house. No reply. Complete silence. She sat down at the kitchen table to wait and watched the sun creep across the window and cast longer and longer shadows on the kitchen counter. It was getting late. Her mother came home, her face pale with worry, but, finally, at eight o'clock her father thumped down the stairs into the kitchen, his thin face flushed with excitement.
Agata's father looked like a stretched-out version of Agata. They both had the same skin color, the same color hair, the same green eyes—though his were hidden behind smudged glasses, a prescription so strong that his eyes looked like two floating fish. That night he and her mother drank a bottle of Cava at dinner, and, although it was clear he wouldn't be able to talk about what he had done, he was obviously quite excited.
The next day, her father was gone again. She called up: silence. She called his cell phone. It rang and rang and then dropped to his automated voicemail, a robotic voice reciting the digits of his phone number. She was tired of wondering.
Although he had never forbidden her from coming upstairs, it seemed like he never wanted to be disturbed. She could never tell why; her father was a kind, quiet man and rarely grew angry or upset. He seemed to cherish silence and privacy in his work, so she respected that. But that day, Agata finally decided to mount the stairs. Her mother was not home—she was out at the market and left a note and an egg salad sandwich in the kitchen for her—so Agata slowly took the spiral stairs one step at a time, calling out to her father as she went.
When she reached the top, she found the office in wild disarray. There were papers everywhere, and books lay open on their backs like gutted fish. All the computers were off, except for one, and it was driving the printer to pump out page after page of gibberish. Open on her father's central desk, bathed in sunlight from the open window, was a sheaf of yellow paper pinned together with an old rusted staple. On the front, in Spanish, it read "Mytro, Vias Catalonias." Under another, newer, map was a sheaf labeled "Mytro El Mundo." Next to it was a coin on a leather string, or something that looked like a coin. It had one serrated edge, like a sharp knife, and a curved edge. There were strange, small markings punched into the metal. Next to this, folded over once, was a note, which she picked up. The paper was heavy in her hand and she could tell it was from a stationery set she had purchased her father at the Mercado one Christmas. It was handmade and flecked with loose blue strings. The woman at the stall had said it was made of old blue jeans. She folded the note open and read.
It was written to her mother and said, in her father's ornate Spanish:
It is my hope that you will not have to read this, but if you do, understand that I am safe but it will take a long while for me to return. I have these many months been researching something that once belonged to our family and went missing, and I believe I have found it again.
Please take these items and keep them safe. They are keys to my discovery, and there may be people looking for them now that I have completed most of my research. Keep them with you at all times—don't simply leave them in the house. I want you to understand I am in no danger, and it is my belief that you and Agata will also be safe. Speak to no one about this and await further contact.
When her mother returned, Agata showed her the note and the items. That night, even though it had been years since she slept in her parents' bed, she curled up next to her crying mother as they tried to sleep.
YOU ARE READING
Imagine if, right now, clattering underneath your feet was a secret train system that could take you anywhere in minutes. Imagine a trip full of mystery and excitement from New York to Barcelona to the wind-swept coast of Italy to the edge of space...