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Fiction – “For There You Have Been” by V. Edward Gordon

Jake August discovered magic the week that his grandfather died. It started with an urge to walk left instead of right as he got off the school bus. He did not head into his neighborhood, but went to visit the old man in his nursing home.

His Vans tennis shoes squeaked too loudly in the linoleum hallways that smelled of old – excrement masked with lemon bleach and crape paper ribbons. An after-school bag of chips and two hours on the Playstation would have enveloped Jake with habitual numbness. Instead he had come here, looking for the person who had once played “goch-yer-nose” and taught him how to safely use a table saw. Jake found what he thought was his grandfather’s room, peered in at a featherless bird of a man, backed out, then froze as he recognized the copper eyes. He considered leaving.

“Grandpa.” He said it three times before the skin skeleton in the wheelchair grunted a name Jake didn’t know. Grandpa stared at a blue milk crate on the floor, stuffed with letters and personal items. Jake had watched that crate fill up over the years, and got the impression that the contents of Grandpa’s mind were spilling onto the floor, and some well-intentioned person was scooping them up for safe keeping.

“Let’s cover you up and get you out of this room.” On the back of the door he found the thick robe that had been a Christmas present a few years ago, and pulled it over Grandpa’s plucked chicken skin. Jake walked around him and laced his fingers around the plastic grips of the wheelchair. He made sure Grandpa’s feet were on the plates, and pushed. The chair moved lightly, like an empty cardboard box.

In the hallway again, Jake picked a direction at random. “Are things any cheerier over here?” Sitting rooms and bulletin boards slid past. Ghostly figures crept by, indistinguishable from their own shadows. The lady at reception smiled dreamily. “Hello, young man. Come to see Grandpa today, have you?” He smiled back. It was the exact sentence she had oozed at him a few minutes ago when he arrived.

At the intersection to another beige hallway he felt a jab at his left butt cheek. “It’s in here,” a voice croaked. A wizened woman under a flowered shower cap hobbled past him, pulling the floor past her with slippered feet. “It’s in here,” she said again, annoyed that Jake hadn’t changed course immediately. Several other residents shuffled through the same doorway. A plastic plaque on the wall named the room CAFETERIA. Glen Miller’s Big Band buzzed from a PA system.

“All right,” Jake said. “Looks like the swingin’ spot.” He pushed Grandpa through into a large space filled with the competing odors of previous meals. On the right squatted a short stage tiled with faux wood laminate. Two sections of brown stackable chairs had been set up. Jake headed toward the rear of these and sat with Grandpa next to him. Many of the other seats were occupied. From here Jake saw only the backs of ancient heads, cotton tufts or mottled skin. Faces turned away and waiting. Jake tried not to think that they were all waiting for death.

He faced Grandpa. “I haven’t come by in a while and I wanted to–” More residents scooted into chairs around them. He continued quietly. “You want to play some bocce ball today?” No response from Grandpa. “Some chess?” Jake felt another jab at his butt and turned. Shower Cap had poked him through the hole in his seat back. He started to say I have a shoulder you could tap, but she cut him off.

“He’s starting now.”

A single spotlight came up on stage. The music faded out, leaving a hush in the gathering. A piece of shadow detached from the curtain at the back of the stage. The toe of one black boot clicked inside the cone of light, a pinstriped leg, a flutter of cloak, a flourish, a top hat, and then the kindest smile Jake August had ever seen. A man with the smile of a child.

A magic show, Jake thought. What a perfect way to spend some time with Grandpa. This guy looked the part and more, the original template for all magicians. A delicate paisley flocking decorated his hat band. The same design slid inside his cloak, which was held on with a silver clasp to his throat. Despite the grandeur of his garments, he moved easily in them, wore them as an afterthought. A clumsy applause came from the group, as though they were greeting a regular visitor. He waved familiarly. Jake noticed that Grandpa’s eyes looked awake now.

“Ladies and Gentleman, good evening.” The man’s voice was wine. “If I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting you, my name is Joseph Knightman.” A subtle English accent, as though he’d been out of that country for some time. “I have come because you have called me, and as always, I am your servant.” He bowed his head and a swish of silver hair laced with beads fell by his cheek. Again Jake saw that smile, genuine in the man’s eyes. Joseph Knightman’s soul was smiling. “Good Lady!” He descended from the stage in a breath and took the arm of a woman teetering against a walker. “This dashing gentleman in the bow tie has saved a seat for you on the front row.” He led her to the seat. Jake grinned, sure that the two old people were blushing like teenagers at the dollar movies.

Knightman hopped back onto the stage. “I have gone wandering,” he continued. “I have made a promise, and I have kept a promise. The benefit, of course, is yours. And it is here tonight.” He threw back a black drape. Every face turned. A silver booth stood at center stage. Panels and wheels fanned out behind it like open mechanical wings.

“This machine turns people into stories!”

Knightman clicked his boots to the other end of the stage, and Jake knew by the audience’s silence that he had them. These folks usually breathed shallowly, but Jake thought he could feel them holding their collective breath. Even the hiss of oxygen tanks lessened to let him speak. The waiting for death had become a waiting for this man’s next words. Two dozen sets of rheumy eyes tracked the lips of Joseph Knightman, who owned all the light in the room. Jake, too, waited to see what would be done with this winged contraption. Not wings, he realized, giant pages, with the booth centered in the “spine.”

“Engaging stories,” Knightman continued, “stories your grandchildren will read time and again, eager to re-live the adventures of their mother’s mother, the noble sacrifice of their grandfather’s brother, the grand accomplishments of great Auntie, who was old and useless when they knew her.”

He stroked open a door in the booth, just a sliver, but closed it again as necks stretched to see. “I will demonstrate.” He opened it wide to show … a volunteer, the old woman in the flowered shower cap. “Dear Mrs. Whatley here will show us.” She sat like a crumpled envelope, but her face beamed rapture. Knightman eased the door closed, latched it.

“Here will be distilled altruism forgotten, greatness overlooked, wisdom unnoticed – the epic no biographer could find, portrayed with the grace of Joyce.” He spun a wheel.

“The thrill of Stevenson,” a string of lights.

“The candor of Hemingway,” a puff of steam.

“The heart-rending beauty … of … Byron.”

A widow in the second row squeaked, and very nearly toppled.

Knightman stepped aside, and gave the stage to the chamber that held Mrs. Whatley. The booth sucked all remaining breath from the room. It hummed softly. Then with a soft billow of fog that rose straight up into the lights, it stopped. Knightman walked over, opened the door. He stretched out a hand and withdrew Mrs. Whatley like he was removing a block from a tower and trying not to topple it.

“Beautiful woman,” he said, “you are a success. Bless you, Dear-heart.” He kissed her hand and set her adrift, like a feather. As she strode across the stage to the steps, Knightman moved to the side of the machine, reached into a hatch and withdrew a book. Golden edged pages sat in a tooled dark leather binding. He opened it, and read from the first page: “‘There is a rose, there is the sea, and there is Eliza Constance Whatley. It will be left to the reader to decide which of the three this story is about. Nothing will be spoiled to say at this point that the sun and the rain have fallen on each….’ It continues, of course. It goes on until its end, as we all will do.” As Mrs. Whatley crossed the floor in front of the stage, Knightman knelt and placed the book in her gnarled hands. He cupped them with his own for a moment before letting her continue.

“Gaze on her well, good people. Before you is an angel who has found a new name, a petal, pressed now for eternity in the pages of our memories.”

Mrs. Whatley glided down the isle between brown plastic chairs. One tuft of wiry hair had sneaked out from under her shower cap and stuck straight out to the side, illuminated in the stage lights like a feather in the sun. Her eyes drifted like the smoke from two blown out candles. She slid past the crowd and out through the double doors.

What did he do, hypnotize her? Jake thought. Aren’t nursing home shows supposed to be a little more uplifting? Not that he’d had as much experience with nursing homes as he probably should have, considering how long Grandpa had been in one.

Knightman took center stage again. “Should you require my services or wish to discuss the Legacy Books further, I’ll be available for today and tomorrow only. Until we meet again.” He bowed, left the stage and the curtain lowered.

That was it. The residents scuffed back their chairs and resumed their wandering and muttering. Glen Miller started again on the PA system.

Not so much a magic show then, as a short sales pitch. Jake considered the product. If what he’d just seen was genuine (and he didn’t really believe it was), it would be a brilliant way to re-connect with Grandpa. Jake could read the book to him. They would explore Grandpa’s personalized biography together, one of them learning and the other remembering. He pictured Grandpa smiling at certain passages. He might even speak. “Yes,” Grandpa would say, “Yes, they got that just right, didn’t they?” It might bring him back from wherever he’d drifted to in his mind. For that matter, Jake could learn about Grandpa on his own, without even being at the nursing home.

“I want to apologize for not coming to see you very often.” He scanned Grandpa’s capillary-webbed face for any sign of acknowledgment. “What did you think of that show? Would you like to do something like that? We could read it together.” No reply. Grandpa’s beakish nose pointed aimlessly at the ground. His lips worked, but soundlessly. Jake caught the burnt odor of fresh urine.

***

Jake had quickly stepped out when the nurse came to clean up Grandpa. He couldn’t be within sight, sound or … any other sensory range while that was taking place. He wandered down the hall feeling like he should probably just go home. He’d made an attempt today, but Grandpa was even worse off than expected.

He thought of Mrs. Whatley and the “Legacy Books.” Surely a scam, but wouldn’t it be perfect to have some way like that to get Grandpa back? And not just this worn out version, but the Grandpa Jake only had the vaguest ideas of. To experience him (even if just in a book) as a friend, a child, a boy in love, a hero would quell any absentee guilt Jake had ever felt. What a perfect racket Knightman had going on. Nothing would appeal more to old folks and their families than drops from the fountain of youth. Cruel, though, if those drops were nothing but tap water.

There was always the chance that Knightman was actually a gifted writer, that he really was writing good biographies after extensive interviews, and he just had a bizarre marketing plan. Might be worth looking into. But still, a part of Jake would be disappointed with that answer. He’d feel cheated. Vindicated, but cheated. And with that thought, he found himself standing outside the cracked-open door of the cafeteria.

He stood there disoriented, sure that he’d been headed in the other direction. Cool air blew through the dark opening and lifted his hair. He pulled the handle and put his face through. The room was dark except for that single spotlight on the apron of the stage. And centered in it, a small white card folded to stand like a tent, placed with conspicuous intent. It glowed, it … promised, if a card could do that.

He slipped through and approached the foot of the stage. As his eyes adjusted, the white card shimmered and streaked after images on his retinas. It hazed out Jake’s peripheral vision, so that he felt that he was approaching from inside a tunnel. He stopped at arm’s length, but it wasn’t the brightness that held his attention now. It was the two words written on the front of the card in handwriting with just the right amount of flourish.

Jacob August

He stood there, sure that the instant he touched that card someone would jump out from behind the black curtains and shout “Boo!” – then laugh at him when he flinched.

The paper was edged in the same gold that Mrs. Whatley’s Legacy Book had been. Jake inhaled, and snatched it. (No “boo.”) He opened it, read the sentence inside. Read it again, and his mouth went dry.

It is real.

He felt like he’d just done something bad, like he’d noticed that he was on the wrong bus and headed away from home, or been caught looking at porn, or just accepted a ride from a stranger. He tossed the card back onto the stage, turned away, then turned back and shoved it into his pocket, and left. He managed something like a laugh that said “Nice, but I’m not impressed.” His legs felt hollow and he had to concentrate on moving them.

The light of the hallway cleared his head somewhat, and renewed his urge to be with Grandpa. Perhaps he could go through some of the things in Grandpa’s memory crate with him. He’d responded to that in the past. That seemed a very good use of a few minutes.

Jake came into view of Grandpa’s room and saw the nurses bustling about, robotic in their duties. The letter-filled crate sat just inside the door. Jake stepped forward, just as one nurse moved aside, and a sheet pulled back exposing the long white length of Grandpa’s naked thigh and buttock. Jake whirled back around, and ground his teeth together. No, that was about all the nursing home that Jake could handle today. He headed down the hall that lead to reception and the exit.

Almost at the end of the hall he passed a room and glimpsed Mrs. Whatleys’s Legacy book open on a side table. He stopped and peered through the doorway at an angle. He could see now that the text was actually handwritten in a scratchy style that could have been the woman’s own. Amazing. Any family member coming across it would think she had somehow managed to write it herself. He could picture daughters crying at its discovery, having it copied, spiral bound and distributed to families as a Christmas present.

To the left he saw Mrs. Whatley. She had tucked each hair back in place and laid herself on the bed, propped up and staring at nothing. Mrs. Whatley of the flowered shower cap was immaculate, she was smiling, she was peaceful …

… and she was dead.

She was dead. A dead body, Jake thought, and stepped backwards. There’s a dead body in front of me. Already her pink features were draining to the color of chewed meat. And he shivered like he’d just found a cockroach in his shoe. He should sneak away, before anyone found him there. Let the staff discover her on their own. It must happen all the time here. He stepped back into the hall.

Knightman, the booth, the book, dead Mrs. Whatley. His mind made connections, but he fought them away, forced them to dissolve. Grandpa. Knightman. He walked faster. The first person he came to was the receptionist.

“Ma’am.” She turned her face toward him. “That man in the cafeteria did something to–”

“Hello, young man. Come to see Grandpa today, have you?”

“Yes,” he said, “I got here a little bit ago. I took my Grandpa into the cafeteria, and the man in there did something to an old lady. She walked out to her room and she d – , she’s passed away, and I think …”

The receptionist had turned her round face back down to a gossip magazine open on the desk in front of her.

“Ma’am?”

She looked up again. “Hello, young man. Come to see Grandpa today, have you?”

He saw her eyes this time, vacant like blown out candles. She turned back to her magazine.

“Is there a phone I could use?”

“Hello, young man …”

The panic was a clawed animal in Jake’s chest trying to tear its way up through his throat. He backed away from her and strode off, trying hard not to run, or vomit. The nurses were just finishing up in Grandpa’s room. He recognized the look in their eyes too, so he stepped around the corner and pulled open the door to the cafeteria.

The curtain was open now, and on stage, whistling “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” was Knightman. He had removed his cloak and hat and was stowing props and latching crates. The booth itself, folded efficiently into portfolio size, leaned against the exit.

Jake moved down the isle, towards the stage. It took several attempts before he could get any words out. When his mouth finally did open, Jake thought the sound would have been too soft to be audible. “What did you do to her?”

“Mr. Jacob August,” Knightman said. He faced Jake and tilted his long figure against a crate. “Has sweet Mrs. Whatley passed on already? The eager ones don’t ever take long.”

Jake could only stare for a moment. Knightman had known immediately what he’d meant, like he’d been expecting Jake to ask about her. “How do you know me?”

“Your grandfather told me about you.”

“That’s not true, my grandfather doesn’t even know who I am.”

“No, that’s not true. You were impressed by the show?”

“Disgusted. You’re evil. You take old people and kill them.”

Knightman flinched. “Nice soundbite, but I think you already know that’s not the whole game. I certainly don’t “take” anyone’s grandpa. They come to me freely, as you saw yourself tonight, because they want to get away.”

No attempt at a denial at all then. He seemed proud. “Get away from what? Their families? It’s not that bad here.”

“I forget how young you are.” He turned back to his packing. “And that’s a compliment. They’ve been pleading for this, pleading in their prayers because there they don’t have to form the words. And when they meet me, they finally realize what it is they’ve been praying for.

Jake straightened. “What you’re doing is not natural.”

Knightman stepped toward him, wiping his hands on a handkerchief. “That’s your beef? Not ‘natural’? And how do you define that, Jake m’boy? Is it natural for a once respected human being to sit in an ill-fitted wheelchair in the same hallway, all day, for years, waiting to die? Is it natural to fry a person’s mind with asinine television shows every waking hour of the day, long past a time when they understand any of it? Natural to be kept alive with chemicals and pumps after your bodily functions have all given out on their own? To be locked away by your family because you’re no longer convenient?”

Jake spoke, but Knightman continued, his voice even. “Natural to sit in your own piss and shite ’til some orderly can’t stand the smell of you anymore? Death is more natural than life. Forget ‘natural,’ let’s talk about humane.”

“These people have been put here,” Jake said, angry at the quiver growing in his voice, “because their families love them, and want the best for them, but they don’t have the means to give it to them.”

Knightman held up a finger, clinching his argument. “Then those families are being selfish! I’m giving freedom to innocent prisoners, and afterwards joy to their families in the form of a book that will help them know their loved ones like they never could have otherwise.” All of his things were locked neatly inside a black wheeled box now, and he began pushing it off stage.

Jake spoke as the box rolled past him. His voice finally cracked. “How can you stand it? What’s in it for you?”

“A promise.” He left the crate in the stage wing and turned to Jake, cleaning his hands again with another fresh handkerchief. “And the knowledge that one day, when I can’t bear the looming scenario of eating meals through a straw and having a pretty nurse wipe my arse for me, I too will step into the booth and leave behind a Legacy Book for the ages, one to top them all.” He headed toward the exit.

“But who will read it?” Jake shouted.

Knightman whirled without breaking his stride. “The point will be that it can be read!” He left through the exit door.

Jake heard a footstep on the cafeteria floor. He turned to see a nurse leaving Grandpa in the spot where she had collected him. Her smokey eyes skimmed past and through him as she slid away without a word. Jake pulled a chair up in front of Grandpa.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to do, but don’t go anywhere with this guy. Don’t go in that booth. I haven’t had time to …” Jake found that he couldn’t look Grandpa in the face. He spoke to Grandpa’s talon fingers instead. “I’ve been busy with school. I kept meaning to come by. I was worried that you’d be … not feeling well, so I didn’t–”

“The only reason you can stand to leave him here is because he never speaks your name any more.” Jake hadn’t even heard Knightman return. But he was there next to them. “Here, put this on.”

Jake had Knightman’s silk hat on before he knew how it happened. His vision blurred. The room tilted. He slid out of the chair. He reached for the brim, but Knightman pushed his hand away. “You can break the connection any time you want by taking the hat off, but just hold still and look.” Jake saw the floor tiles moving, too many fingers on his hands, Knightman’s four legs, his grandfather’s two heads, slowly moving together as though his eyes were focusing. The two Grandpas neared each other, and as they did, Jake saw a difference. The left Grandpa was familiar, slumped in his wheel chair, slack mouth, tarnished eyes. The right Grandpa stared back at him, the penny eyes newly minted. “Jake-y-boy,” said the right grandfather, and smiled.

The left grandfather hadn’t moved, except to slide over and behind his translucent twin. The two old men overlapped now. “Quit squirming on the floor like a baby. Next you’ll piss yourself.”

“Grandpa.” Jake stared.

“There’s nothing worse than the smell of grown-up piss. It’s pathetic. Get up!”

Jake sat up.

“Now. Did you have something to say to me?”

No words came. His mind fought against what he was seeing, and finally let go. Jake was nine years old again, looking up into the face of his superhero, begging to be taken flying on his shoulders.

“I miss you.” The sentence came out like a pulled cork, and Jake’s tears began to flow.

“I haven’t gone anywhere yet. But I know what you mean. I’ve missed you too, Navigator. This won’t last long. Talk to me.”

The dizziness had faded, but Jake still had a hard time composing himself. “I don’t like what this man is doing to people …. I don’t want you to get mixed up in it. He just comes in here and starts handing out death, like trick-or-treat bags. I’ll try to keep you away from him, but I need help. I can’t keep you safe alone. He does things to people’s minds, and I can’t tell people about him. How can I help you?”

Tears welled in the eyes of the Grandpa who looked at the floor, but not in those of the Grandpa who spoke. “He didn’t just come here. He was asked to come. I asked him to come. I want him here, and I want what he can offer.”

Jake’s face went numb. He gave up what little progress he’d made in standing. “No.”

“Huh? Why not? It’s a good offer. One that most people won’t get. I’ll be able to leave you all something that I can’t give anymore – the man I was.”

Tears soaked Jake’s shirt collar. He had to look at the floor as he spoke. “You’d be killing yourself. That’s not right.”

The folds of the old man’s eyes pulled back. “Oh? Is that what worries you? You have theological issues with it? What if I were a twenty year old, fixing my bayonet and charging a Nazi machine gun? Would you condemn me for that?”

Jake knew well that sixty years ago Grandpa had done just that. 101st Airborne, Screaming Eagles. He’d heard all the stories. The conversation was getting away from him. He should rip the hat off, end this talk that was going the wrong way. Let Grandpa be mute again.

Jake still couldn’t look up. “No. I don’t want you to do it. I want more time. I didn’t come to see you for a long time, because they said you’d gotten bad. I was scared to see that. I want to know you again. I don’t want you to go.”

Grandpa spoke slowly. “I didn’t want your grandmother to go.”

Jake felt something burst within him. His face sank the rest of the way to the floor. There was no answer to that. He had little doubt now that Knightman’s booth did what he claimed. He also realized that Grandpa was eager to go through with it. He’d already made up his mind. In fact if Jake hadn’t shown up today, it was very likely that Grandpa would already be a dead body with a fancy book.

“I love you, Jake-y-boy. Thank you for coming. It means a lot to me that you did. Tell you what, come talk to me tomorrow before the show. And either way, we’ll fly again. I promise.”

Jake finally turned his face up, just as the two grandfathers separated, and the smiling one faded from view. He pulled the hat brim around his ears, but it had no effect. Grandpa hunched, unresponsive again.

“He broke the connection,” Knightman said, taking his hat back. “They can do that.” He threw his cloak over one arm and opened the exit at the back of the stage. “Last show is tomorrow night. Your grandfather will be making a decision. You should come.”

***

Jake was useless in school the next day. He hadn’t mentioned the events at the nursing home to anyone. He wasn’t sure how far away Knightman’s stupefying influence would have an effect on people, but he felt exhausted just thinking about trying to explain things to another person and having them go smokey in the eyes again. “Nice young man. Run along now.” Classes were agony, as were lunchtime and any attempts at conversation, but finally he found himself on the bus, curled up to the window, willing everyone to let him be. Knightman’s final show would start in half an hour.

At some point in the day, Jake had realized that the easiest thing to do would be to do nothing. Let Knightman swish Grandpa up into his cloak and be gone. Because Knightman was right about Jake being selfish. He’d only been thinking about not being able to see Grandpa anymore – or not having the option of seeing Grandpa anymore. That was it really. He just wanted to know that he could, if the mood struck him. Or perhaps when he felt too guilty. But Grandpa wasn’t a game to be played, and then put back into the cabinet until next time. The bus’s brakes screeched, pulling Jake out of his thoughts for a second. Students squealed and punched each other.

But what of the guilt for knowing that he hadn’t taken advantage of these last moments? He’d never be able to push these events from his mind, couldn’t lose this in video games, couldn’t pretend anymore that he intended to make good some day. There would be no more self-promises to get to know Grandpa soon. What Knightman was doing was permanent. And it was that word – permanent – that made Jake sit up and realize that the school bus was stopped dead in traffic.

He checked his watch. Four minutes until Knightman would start his show.

He scanned the street below; a solid grid-work of cars clogged the highway. An emergency lane on the bus’s left gave access to the exit they needed fifty yards further, but the driver seemed content to inch along behind the other cars in this lane. Jake willed him to swerve left and up to the exit. The engine revved and grumbled, but the same scenery sat stubbornly in the windows.

The nursing home show was starting now.

Jake thought of walking up to urge the driver on. Clawed panic thrashed to life in his throat again. No movement on the street. Tears seeped into his eyes. The other students continued their spit-balling, and pencil-pegging, and would surely welcome the amusement of a bawling kid a few seats over. He pulled his backpack in front of his face, hiding from them. Hiding from everything.

Three minutes into Knightman’s show. He would be charming the old people now. Smiling at them over and over. Smiling. Like a child.

Jake shoved his backpack over, stood and forced his way up the isle. He smashed toes and banged elbows until he stood next to the driver.

Please, take the emergency lane! I have to get home!”

The driver looked at Jake’s blotchy face.

“All right,” he said, “I was just looking for an excuse, and a panicked kid is good enough for me.” He yanked the wheel to the left and roared up the exit ramp.

When they finally reached the bus stop outside Jake’s neighborhood, he still had to make it over to the nursing home. He ran, and refused to look at his watch, or think about how it was a twenty minute walk.

He was rubbing a stitch in his side as he pulled open the double doors that led to the reception desk. The receptionist stood in his path, as if expecting him.

“Jake!” She reached up and took his shoulders in her hands. “Oh, Jake,” she said sadly. Her eyes were clear now – too clear – green with messy flakes of brown. She stroked his arm as though to steady him, which was silly because she was a tiny woman, no bigger than himself.

“I called your parents earlier, but you must not have gone home yet. I’m so sorry, Jake …”

He hated the way she kept saying his name. On one level he knew she was just being caring, but it felt manipulative, as though stroking him with his own name would soothe away any awkward emotional outbursts. Just tell me, he thought. You’re not helping by dragging it out. He’d played this scene out in his mind many morbid times already. He already knew the big reveal. But she still hadn’t actually said it.

She was going on now about “arrangements” but Jake had already withdrawn. He couldn’t hear her through his rising anger. Knightman did it anyway. Wouldn’t even wait for me.

Jake pulled away from the receptionist. “Where’s the book?” He headed for Grandpa’s room.

The receptionist called his name – again, which pissed him off, and he ran. He stormed into the room and was taken aback by how sterile they had made it already. The bed was smooth. The bedside table empty, even the photographs were gone. No robe hanging on the door, or wheelchair by the window. Jake shoved furniture and slammed open closet doors looking for a leather cover and gold-leafed pages. “Where’s the book? Did you guys pack it up?”

An orderly entered the room with the receptionist close behind carrying Grandpa’s crate of letters and things. They both pawed at him as gently as they could. He shrugged them away, saw the crate, grabbed it and bolted out the door.

“Knightman!” The cafeteria was dark, the stage stripped to bare walls. Jake stomped across the open floor toward the back exit. “I want his book!” He jammed the exit bar down and the low afternoon sun burst in, blinding him. One arm over his eyes, he scanned the parking lot. Empty. No one. He couldn’t see. The light buried him alive, clogged his throat and nose. His heart beat his chest so hard his shirt jumped. “I want–” he slumped back against the building, his belt loops snagging against the bricks until the sandy concrete ground rose up beneath him.

After a moment he could breathe again. The sun, which had blinded him moments before, now warmed the water on his cheeks. The bloody glow on the inside of his eyelids was the only color he wanted to see.

To his left the door clanked open and then closed. A cool purple slid over Jake’s closed eyes, and he knew someone stood over him. The orderly probably.

“It wasn’t me.” A voice like wine, with an almost English accent that might have been faked. Jake decided not to look.

“You took him anyway. Now I want his book.”

“There is no book.”

Jake felt the figure crouch next to him. He opened his eyes and saw a pair of worn jeans over biker boots. He wiped his face, embarrassed that he might have been talking to someone else, but the silver hair laced with beads down one cheek gave Knightman away.

“No show today. No volunteer, no show, no book. I did ask him again if he wanted to do it. He didn’t even come to the cafeteria. He went the traditional way, in his sleep, probably thinking of your grandmother.”

Jake started crying again, and hugged the crate in his lap.

“The tears sneak up on you, don’t they? They’ll taper off at some point. But years from now something might set them off again – the way a room looks at night, or the smell of engine oil. Every time it happens, you’ll understand a little more.” Knightman stood. “And I think you catch on quicker than most.” He pulled a wad of keys from his jeans pocket. “I have promises to keep. Goodbye for now, Jake August.” He strode off under the sun. At the other end of the parking lot Jake saw him pull open the cab door of a black Peterbilt semi-truck. He climbed in. The truck growled to life, and pulled around the parking lot in a wide arc the shape of a child’s smile.

***

Video games gathered dust in cupboards, but no one missed them. One thing that was not getting dusty on this afternoon two months from the day Joseph Knightman had walked away into the sun was Grandpa’s crate of memories. Its contents were spread across Jake August’s bedroom desk. They were being turned and handled gently but thoroughly by a boy who was bringing his grandfather back to life. Jake stroked the dust from a plaque of medals, a watermarked wedding photograph, a small model airplane. Along with the dust, he also wiped away fear, and habit. Underneath he discovered many beautiful things.

Next to the collection sat a white three-ring binder containing a stack of mostly blank lined paper. On the cover was written “Grandpa August (working title), by Jacob August.” Inside there was only one line so far:

“There once was a man who was also many birds.”

Jake thought it a good start. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He’d find out as he worked.


.

About the Author

V. Edward Gordon is a graphic designer from Peoria, Arizona and life-long short story fan. Occasionally he’ll crank one out himself and pester his wife for feedback. He enjoys learning how other people write, teasing his kids, and pretending he knows how to play the guitar. He expects his coming-of-age moment any day now.

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