When grandpa finally went, there wasn't much fanfare other than a real loud, real long relaxed fart that Uncle Ted and I heard from the living room.
Uncle Ted sighed and said, "Your grandpa's last exhale." I figured he must have thought it was grandpa’s final rattled breath, and I smothered some nervous laughter with my hands. We kind of looked at each other without really making any eye contact. Then with a deep, collective sigh, we both stood up and headed into his bedroom to see him. Outside, the murky dusk darkened to night, and the Halloween trickle of kids had already started to dry up. I set the candy bowl out on the front porch and followed Uncle Ted into grandpa’s bedroom.
Uncle Ted had been staying across the hall and one room down from grandpa’s bedroom in the old house ever since grandpa got bad, giving a hand and sometimes a supporting arm to help him shuffle around. The place had gone to hell since time grew close for grandpa, and Uncle Ted had been packing things and boxing stuff up for weeks. It was the general agreement with grandpa that the place and all the collected knickknacks would be sold. The money earned, plus grandpa’s savings, would pay for any funeral services, cover unpaid debts, and would still leave a little something for everyone.
When we entered the bedroom, we found grandpa in the back corner where we weren’t able see him until the door was all the way open. Instead of being in bed where we’d left him, he was half-slumped in his favorite chair with a glass in his lap, his arthritically-knuckled right hand resting next to it. His eyes were still partly open like he was on his way to sleeping but not quite there yet, and I wondered if death took him by surprise the way it snatched him up so fast he didn't get to close them all the way like that. And there was still the fading smell of grandpa’s last toot.
Uncle Ted sniffed the air and looked at me sideways. I shrugged and he said, "the death fart," all serious and somber as if it had a great hidden meaning. I tried not to, but I ended up laughing a little before regaining my composure. Uncle Ted touched my shoulder and said, "It's okay to laugh, that's how people grieve," then he leaned in and checked grandpa for a pulse.
He shook his head and stood. "It's on account of the loosening."
I took the glass from grandpa’s lap and noticed it had been filled with a weird, murky green liquid from the fridge that grandpa warned us not to touch or even mess with at all. I sniffed the glass before setting it down, then used the handkerchief from grandpa’s pocket to wipe the residue from his mouth. "What’s on account of what loosening?"
Uncle Ted looked at me, that serious expression chiseled into his face. "His butthole ring. When people die, it declenchifies and lets everything go."
I was trying not to laugh again. Unintentionally, Uncle Ted always seemed to do that to me. "Oh. His declenchifying butthole ring grew three sizes today?"
"Don't be a smartass, Tommy." He always called me Tommy when I got under his skin.
A laugh barked out of me before I could catch it, and Uncle Ted sighed and looked toward the ceiling. That was his reaction of being exasperated by something I said or did ever since I was a boy. Uncle Ted's only ten years older than me and we're both adults now, but he still treats me like I never grew up.
Uncle Ted leaned in and put his arms around grandpa’s waist. He started to rock a little on his feet trying to lift grandpa and found he just couldn't do it. He glanced at me and said, "Here, just help me put him back on the bed."
I said, "Why? He's in his favorite chair," but I was already moving to grab grandpa’s legs just the same.
Together, we carried grandpa like we were firemen and his body was a ladder. While Uncle Ted strained and grunted, he said, "The body becomes much heavier after death once the lightness of being alive is extinguished."
I smiled to myself and said, “Heavier? Even after the butthole ring gets all declenchified?"
"Shut up, Tommy." Uncle Ted snapped as he laid grandpa’s upper body at the head of the bed, all right and proper. He arranged grandpa’s pillow, then positioned his head into a comfortable repose while I swung grandpa’s lower half into place. Uncle Ted unbuttoned grandpa’s top two flannel shirt buttons, leaned over him, then gently and carefully closed grandpa’s eyes. He gently kissed his father’s forehead and I felt a throat lump carrying some tears to my eyes. Uncle Ted's always been decent.
We left grandpa there and went back into the living room, dodging all the junk that filled the hallway and was piled up in the living room. Uncle Ted was tapping his hand against his leg and making a low humming noise. He noticed me watching him, and announced that he needed to get some air. He had this haunted look on his face, all pale and wide-eyed. I suggested we take a walk to Burger Depot at the end of the street, and at first he looked like he didn’t want me near him. His expression softened a bit, and I think my uncle had gone into his be strong for others mode. He told me with an uneasy smile that five blocks and a little meal appealed to him, so he agreed to my offer and we headed out.
We walked in silence. We breathed in crisp air and exhaled heavy sighs. We talked about sports, we talked about anything we could while avoiding the topic of grandpa. Uncle Ted kept staring into the dark, flinching at every noise and shadow along the way. I watched the moon, quicksilver and full, rising before us. Finally, I pulled Uncle Ted to me and hugged his chest. I don’t know how long we stood there like that, crying for our loss and the emptiness within us that seemed to keep growing and spreading. I tried to cry quiet but I couldn’t hold back. Uncle Ted held me against him and let me have at it. When I finally felt composed enough to pull away, I wiped my face and nose with my shirt. I glanced up at Uncle Ted, expecting him to say something embarrassing or goofy, but he didn’t. He put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded. That was it, and I’m forever thankful for that moment.
We continued onward, discussing how to handle the calls to the family, like who would call whom and whatnot. We were into the mechanics of it now, which made it a little easier. We started to talk about keepsakes our family and friends would want, then I made the mistake of wondering out loud who to call about the body. It sent a chill through me to talk about grandpa like he was nothing but a thing now, and Uncle Ted told me not to worry about that just yet. I could see clearly that he was doing enough worrying for the both of us.
Uncle Ted had been droning on (and on and on) over the past few weeks about how people rarely came by to see grandpa, and he said when they did, it was always a short, uncomfortable visit. He called the family as a whole “nothing but a bunch of vultures and buzzards” circling overhead, waiting for grandpa to die so they could swoop in and pick his bones clean. I don’t think he really meant those things, but even I could see how awfully everyone seemed to cope with such things.
He was back on that subject now. He said, “They didn’t give a damn about him, Tom. They just want the shit he’s leaving behind.” Uncle Ted was sinking. His shoulders slumped with the weight of the world upon them, grandpa’s world. Uncle Ted’s world.
It was crawling dark around us, and all I could see that was left of the Trick-or-Treaters was a bike-riding goblin with an over-filled pillowcase of candy in his right hand that was making him steer unsteadily, and a lady dressed like April O’Neil holding hands with a little Ninja Turtle while another slightly bigger Ninja Turtle trailed right behind them. The stillness of the night air felt hollow to me, like we were walking in a tunnel. The treetops swayed in the moonlight, and I could hear the wind, but it didn’t reach us there on the ground.
By trying not to think of grandpa back there, I found myself thinking about grandma. Grandma passed a handful of years ago, and since she passed away after an extended hospital stay, they just took her downstairs to the hospital basement…at least that was what I assumed. That thought dragged my mind all the way around and back to the question about who we were supposed to call for grandpa. I glanced at Uncle Ted to ask him, but he was looking straight ahead with tears and snot running free down his face, and I figured I’d keep that question until we got back. Besides, he gave me my time; it wouldn’t be fair to keep him from his.
At last, we reached the Burger Depot. I left Uncle Ted at one of the picnic tables outside the glow of the parking lot halogens and fetched our food and some drinks while he got himself collected. We ate our food on the way back with the cool quiet of the night around us. Uncle Ted grew increasingly jumpy again as we neared the house, nervously tapping his hand against his thigh. With his brow deeply furrowed and his eyes darting at every shadow like before, Uncle Ted looked one scare away from jumping out of his skin. I tried to coax him into telling me what was wrong with him, but he just kept brushing off my questions with a shake of his head.
When we got back to the house, Uncle Ted asked me to check on grandpa because he said the bladder can empty after death, and of course there also might be some poop from the loosening or whatever. I figured he only wanted some more time alone to try to pull himself back together. Though that was likely a futile battle at this point, I headed for grandpa’s room anyway. The hallway stretched out in my mind; it seemed so long to me that it felt like the longest walk ever, and I thought about how much longer it must feel for those guys on death row. Then I thought that maybe it was the opposite for them and thought they would probably be wishing for a forever hallway right about then. My thoughts were tough to pin down at that point.
I'd almost reached the doorway, extending my hand to grasp the doorknob, when I heard shuffling sounds coming from the other side of the door. I forgot to breathe for a moment, recalling that we never closed the bedroom door, and I called out to whatever was in there with grandpa, trying to hide the panic in my throat. My mind even conjured up rational explanations for why someone–or something–would be moving around in a room occupied by a dead person. Maybe one of the other family members came over while we were out? It was a big family, and they all knew grandpa was close to taking his journey past the curtain of this life.
I stood there for a long time with my shaking hand near the doorknob until finally Uncle Ted snapped me back to reality. He shouted from the living room, with poorly feigned calm in his voice, for me to stop playing with grandpa’s wiener. I yelled, “Very funny!” trying to sound at least as calm and collected as my uncle, but it came out way too high and foreign. I didn’t want to go in there, but I had to because my uncle would probably come soon to see what I was doing, and I had a feeling that the sounds coming from grandpa’s bedroom would be more than enough to send Uncle Ted completely off his nut for good.
So, I steeled myself, taking a deep breath and letting it out nice and slow, then I turned the knob and pushed the door open a little. I braced for any number of nightmarish horrors, but when I peeked in, no one was there. No people, no ghosties, no beasties…but something wasn’t right. Slowly, it all started to sink in: grandpa’s body had been disturbed. His body now rested perpendicular to the position we’d left him, and his legs now dangled over the far side of the bed. I felt a rising panic when I noticed his T-shirt was soaked through, and then I saw grandpa’s dress pants were on him, suspenders attached, and I realized that someone had also removed his flannel shirt. With nobody else in the room that I could point to and accuse, I was left with a mystery well-suited to an HBO-version of Scooby Doo.
I called out to Uncle Ted, my voice high and screechy, and watched with my eyes frozen wide open as grandpa began to stir. He twitched a little and licked his lips. He gripped the side of the mattress with both of his hands, and slowly pulled himself up to a sitting position. He turned his head toward me, his neck creaking and crackling as if it were a rusty hinge set into old dry wood. And I screamed then, high and loud and panicked. I couldn’t will my legs to move as I kept screaming, with my voice reaching an impossibly high note at the precise moment when grandpa reached out and put his hand on my arm.
I fought to pull away from his grip, my left hand trying to pry his hand from my arm as I screamed and shouted for Uncle Ted. Grandpa’s hands were strong from a lifetime of manual labor, and he wouldn’t let go. I pulled and tugged and clawed at the hand the held me prisoner, when grandpa attempted to speak. But a phlegmy coughing fit cut in, and he danced with that instead, holding up his finger. I stopped screaming. My uncle had not yet appeared, and I calmed down somewhat as I waited for his coughing fit to pass. Then I waited some more as he did his gross throat-clearing hack for a little bit. Calmer now, I called out for my uncle yet again, but he did not show, nor had he even answered me. I wondered if maybe Uncle Ted was wrong when he checked grandpa’s pulse, but the reality of it was persistent: grandpa was too pale and ashen for Uncle Ted to have been mistaken. And the hand that gripped my arm was ice cold.
He released my arm, patting it twice as if to say I’m sorry my dead hand from my dead self grabbed you like that. He leaned closer and in a low, gravelly whisper, he told me he was thirsty. Grandpa punctuated that by licking his dry, chapped lips with a sandpapery tongue. I swear I could hear the gummy slap of his eyelids with each determined blink. He asked me to fetch him something to drink, another glass of his good green stuff from the fridge. His glass was on the dresser instead of the nightstand where I had set it. I picked it up and sniffed it again. It smelled earthy and cloying. I put the glass to my lips to taste it. Grandpa grabbed my wrist with his ice-cold, dry hand and said, “That’s just for me now, don’t you be having any.”
His attention turned from me as if I was already gone from the room. He was kind of studying himself now, examining each joint, flexing slowly before moving on to the next. Slowly he’d wiggle a finger, then another and another until they were all moving, and on to his wrist, back and forth, flexing, rotating. Nodding and grunting approval, he switched to the other side and did the same thing, now all together, like shaking sleep out of his arms. Suddenly, grandpa looked back at me, surprised as if I’d appeared out of thin air. He looked so dry: his mouth and lips were cracked, his skin was like old parchment, his eyes were dull and completely void of reflective liquidity. Recognition of my existence slowly returned to him, and he smiled as he shooed me out of the bedroom.
I passed Uncle Ted in the hallway. He was frozen in mid-step, glancing at me then to the doorway, then back to me. I shrugged and said, "I guess grandpa’s been re-clenchified." I added a smile to put an everything is fine point on it, but I guess it came off as half-crazy because Uncle Ted took a wide berth around me and looked back over his shoulder as if he was being led to his own hanging. I watched him pause before reaching the doorway, craning his head to peek into the room before I continued on my way toward the kitchen. I slipped carefully past poorly-stacked boxes, climbing over and between piles of stuff, just to reach the kitchen. In the refrigerator, grandpa’s bottles of Budweiser filled the entire top shelf, and the lowest shelf held a gallon of milk half-gone, as well as the two gallon-sized glass jugs of the good green stuff, each with the trigger hole at the top used for carrying. One of them was full and the other only had maybe a third left in it of thick, green murk. And there were chucks floating in it.
Suddenly, Uncle Ted appeared right over my shoulder, giving me an unexpected (and unwelcome) fright. He stood much too close, with his greasy-burger breath all over my neck. I stepped sideways and backed up a step, ready to shout at him for invading my territorial bubble. I changed my mind when I saw how bloodless his face looked.
His jaw muscles flexed, and Uncle Ted’s voice whistled through his clenched teeth, "He was dead, Tom. Gone."
"I know. grandpa had that rattly COPD breath for years, and he can't hide that. But he’s not doing it anymore."
Uncle Ted stood unmoving, his eyes wide-struck with terror, darting to the left over and over like he was trying to get his head to follow so he could see behind him, but his neck refused to comply. I heard the heavy footsteps approaching and understood his reaction. Something tumbled in the living room, grandpa harrumphed, then something else crashed, yet his footfalls remained steady and even. Grandpa’s hand gripped the archway, then he peered around the corner. He smiled, nodded at me, and pointed at the giant wine bottle. "That's the good stuff, Skeeter. Get me a glass of that, will you?"
I poured him some as he asked. There were no labels on those bottles, and I wondered if he had made himself some bathtub brew recently. As I poured him a glass, the earthy smell was there as before, but there was also an acrid, underlying stink that made my eyes water. I passed grandpa his drink and he downed it in one large swallow. I grimaced as I watched, and asked if he wanted some more. He nodded. I took his glass, poured and passed it back. He swallowed that down and handed me the glass once more, pointing at the fresh bottle. I opened it, poured, and passed the glass to him and down it went. This time I pointed at the jug, but he shook his head and asked for some water from the sink.
It took three full glasses of water before grandpa was satisfied. Uncle Ted was still standing right next to me with a wary, almost dangerous calm that had come over him. We followed Grandpa from the kitchen, and we all sat down on the couch in the living room, an old threadbare thing with a crosshatch pattern of muted natural colors that sagged deeply in the center. It's been the same one since as far back as I could remember, and the simple act of sitting down on it resurrected old smells best left buried within the cushions.
We sat in complete silence that stretched on beyond reason. Uncle Ted stared into empty space ahead of him, hands clasped together so tight his knuckles had turned the color of paper that matched his face. Grandpa sat between Uncle Ted and me, rocking a bit but doing little else. In the quiet, I noticed a very low-pitched hum coming from grandpa. It was the kind of hum you can feel rather than actually hear. I sat there, looking at Uncle Ted and grandpa, wondering if Uncle Ted could hear it and if grandpa realized he was doing it. This is madness, I thought to myself, but at least it can’t get any worse. I had a sinking feeling that last thought would be tested.
The front door suddenly boomed and shook as if something heavy was thrown against it. Uncle Ted and I jumped up and looked at grandpa. Though he said nothing, he offered a knowing glance to each of us. Another thump struck the door, not as loud or heavy as the first, but relentless scratching followed with increasing urgency that accompanied maddening, screeching yelps.
Uncle Ted whined now, almost pleading. "What the hell is that?!" his voice was much higher-pitched than mine had been earlier, and I feared he was less than a half-octave away from an aneurysm.
No one else was heading toward the door, so I decided I might as well do it myself. I stretched to look out through the inside door’s diamond-shaped window, but I found nothing there even though the noise and the scratching continued. As I opened the inside door, grandpa warned me to be careful. It sounded like Uncle Ted was praying. The thing started shrieking. And jumping.
It was monstrosity in miniature: an ankle-high, misshapen husk of a creature with a lolling tongue, an uneven jaw filled with sharp, broken shards of teeth, and one of its eyes lolled right along with its tongue. Disgusted, I backed away.
Uncle Ted, still mumbling the Lord’s prayer (I think he was actually saying grace but I couldn’t be sure) crept up to the door and, stepping in front of me, looked outside. “Oh shit! Oh shit oh hell oh hell!”
I pushed him out of the way to take another look for myself, and Uncle Ted was now reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The thing stopped jumping. It looked up at me as I looked down at it. It made shrieking noises every time it moved; it had to be suffering. I opened the outside door just a little, kneeling down to see it better. I caught a glimpse of something shiny around its neck. I leaned closer, and it leapt at me with its uneven jaw snapping together inches from my face. I struck it with my fist and it tumbled backwards with a yelp as I yanked the door shut.
Grandpa shook his head, looking away. “That’s Pepe.”
“Mrs. Soame’s Chihuahua?” I honestly didn’t recognize it even after I knew what it was supposed to be. “What? How? I mean, what?”
“All it takes is a little sip to bring something back, but it takes a lot to stay back.” Grandpa stood up and walked to the door. The Pepe-thing was at the bottom of the steps, growling and mewling and trying to climb the steps while snapping at the air around it as if the air itself caused the thing pain. “I found it a couple weeks ago at the end of the street. Someone had run it over and just left it there. I had to test it. But after a time it went sour.”
I started to speak when my uncle mumbled something and ran out of the room. We heard him hurrying down the steps to the basement. He shouted something else, laughed, hurried back up the stairs, and went out the side door, shovel in hand.
Grandpa said, “Go out there and help your uncle put it down. I knew something bad would happen when I couldn’t bring peace to it after I’d brought it back. I thought if I buried it well enough, secure enough, it would eventually have peace.”
Understanding of what was going on was beginning to dawn on me and made me wonder to what end this was all leading, but watching Uncle Ted chasing and smacking a vicious dog of the undead with a shovel while screaming bloody murder meant those questions would have to wait.
I joined Uncle Ted outside in our madcap pursuit of the zom-Pepe, leaving grandpa in the house, as he headed toward the kitchen. Uncle Ted had it cornered between the fence and the shed, and he was swinging the shovel with everything he had. Seeing what he’d done to the poor thing made my stomach turn, and I had to wrench the shovel from his hands before he’d stop.
Uncle Ted, out of breath, fell to his knees, panting and crying and mumbling prayers or whatever the hell he was muttering now. It could be recipes for all I knew. I squeezed his shoulder and sat down beside him.
My uncle said, “He’s dead now…isn’t he, Tommy?” I leaned back and peeked around Uncle Ted to check the pulpy mass on the ground. It was dark, but from what I could see, Pepe was done with this world.
I said, “Yeah, he’s dead. You got him.”
“No, Tom. Not that,” he nodded toward the pulpy pile of Pepe, “I meant your grandpa. He’s dead. My dad died, Tommy.”
I considered this for a moment, thought about everything that’s happened, and agreed. “Yeah, I think he is. But I think he’s just found a way to die…longer? All I know is none of us want him to end up like Pepe.”
My uncle rested his head in his hands. “but why, Tom?”
“I don’t know.”
We both looked over at the Pepe pile. It was quivering. We watched it for a while, and to our dawning horror, we realized it was creeping toward us, inching ever closer. I looked at Uncle Ted, he looked back at me, then we took turns using the shovel to chop little Pepe into the smallest bits we could.
It took us a while, a lot longer than we expected, and Uncle Ted checked his watch. “It’s going to be midnight soon, Tom.” He brushed his hair back and I noticed some disgusting streaks of Pepe tangled in it. “I just want this night to end.” Uncle Ted poked the pile of Chihuahua with his shoe. It didn’t move or growl or even twitch. We agreed that Pepe was properly minced and at last unmoving. Uncle Ted offered me a weak pat on the back, put his arm around me, and we supported each other back into the house.
Grandpa was at the kitchen window looking out, and turned to us as we came in the side door. “You might want to burn the pieces. Might have to. That’s how it’s supposed to go.” He was still at the window, looking out. Offhandedly, grandpa added, “It won't go down like that later,” and then he asked me to pour him the rest of the stuff in the fridge.
When the last of the jug was gone, I asked, “What is this all for, grandpa?”
"Don't worry, Tommy. Everything is going to be all right." Grandpa nodded once and waved us out of the kitchen.
Uncle Ted sat on the couch in grandpa’s spot, right in the middle. It’s well-worn and sunken in, and Uncle Ted’s knees were tucked just below his chin. Any lower and he’d need a life-preserver. I sat beside him. We said nothing to each other, we didn’t even make eye-contact. We just sat there, letting the events of the day wash over us. Grandpa walked past us and headed into the bathroom. We could hear him whistling: an old tune he used to whistle, hum, and sing to grandma. He turned on the tub faucet, we heard him washing up, then he turned the water off. He continued to whistle as he left the bathroom and disappeared into his bedroom. My stomach turned over slowly as a thought slipped into my head and nested there.
When grandpa emerged from the bedroom a few minutes later, he wore a fresh clean shirt and had run a comb through his hair. He had even put on his black socks and good church shoes. He sat back on the couch again, gently rocking, and that humming that was coming from inside him had become more pronounced. "Won't be long now."
Ted asked, "What won't be long? What are you doing, dad?"
"Waiting." His answer had a matter-of-fact cadence.
I had a feeling I knew the answer, but I asked the question anyway, "Waiting for who, grandpa?"
He sighed. "My wife.” Then he repeated himself and pointed at us. “My wife. Ted’s mother, your grandma."
Ted made a noise in his throat that sounded like, "Glut!" and then he sprang from the couch like it burned him. He glared at grandpa for a long second and ran outside.
Grandpa watched my uncle as he rushed out, then he leaned in close. He whispered, “I needed your uncle to bring you here, Tom. Ted’s a good boy with a good heart, but I knew deep down that he wouldn’t be able to do what must be done.”
“What is this all about, grandpa?”
He sat there quietly contemplating, wanting to say it right. He said that he wanted, needed, me to understand.
Uncle Ted came back inside, and sat down beside me. He stared ahead at nothing and said, “She’s coming home.”
“Yes she is, Ted. A promise is a promise.” Grandpa cleared his throat and continued, “It’s all about a promise that needed to be kept. She knew all the things necessary. Samhain, tonight’s moon, the veil and All Saint’s Day. All of it. And the skin…no, the membrane…between both worlds is thin tonight, and there are ways to cross.” Grandpa watched the front door, his expressions changing with each passing moment: contentment, fear, hope. But love always there, etched into the features of his face: love and wonder. “She waited all this time. I just had to make sure to do my part. A promise is a promise.” He turned to Uncle Ted. “Would you go outside for me and wait for your mom? I know she’d appreciate that.”
My uncle muttered something about grandma and selfishness, but he went outside just the same. I mulled over what grandpa had been saying, but some questions still were unanswered. I said, “What is it that Uncle Ted can’t do?”
Grandpa told me. I felt like I’d been struck. I was shocked. At first, I said no, shaking my head furiously to get it all out of my head. I needed it all out of my head. But it wouldn’t go away. Grandpa gave me time to vent and think about things: about the fleetingness of life, of the loneliness in dying, the mystery of life and death, and the unknown of it all. “I wish it could have been easier. No fuss, no folderol. I’m already gone, Thomas. I need you now. We need you now. I hope you can forgive a couple of old people for a promise they could never have kept alone.”
My heart ached, but reluctantly I agreed to his request. I trembled with the gravity of it all, and when Uncle Ted returned, he was trembling too. He was pale and pained and aching just the same as me.
Grandpa clapped his hands and stood up. "All right, then. She must be here."
Uncle Ted blocked grandpa’s path and started to shout at him. It came in a torrent of broken sentences and run-on cursing. Grandpa was patient and waited for my uncle’s tirade to end. It sounded like he was hitting all the bases, yet never really making a single coherent thought. Not that it matters. He could have been raving at the sky for all it mattered, that his mother's dead, his father's dead but just won't die, and there's a pile of nasty dead dog in the back yard, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. He could have ranted until his last breath, but grandpa was correct: what’s done is done, and a promise is a promise.
When my uncle finally finished, grandpa touched his son’s shoulder. Then he lightly slapped Uncle Ted’s cheek. Grandpa went outside and down the steps, and both of us followed. There at the bottom was Pepe, sliding along the sidewalk. Grandpa gestured toward the quivering mass. "Yessir. You're going to want to burn that, son." Grandpa checked his posture, adjusted his clothes, then exhaled into his palm and sniffed it. He walked down the lawn toward the gossamer silhouette approaching from up the street. Grandma. She reached the yard and stopped there, waiting patiently. Her skin was desiccated and she was impossibly thin, but she was herself and she wasn’t rotten and we recognized her instantly. She waved to us, and soon grandpa was at her side, having already taken her hand, and they walked around the house at a leisurely pace, together, into the backyard.
There were two gas cans grandpa had filled and set down by the shed, and I picked them up as I was instructed. My vision shimmered now, with a lump in my throat that I felt would be with me for a very long time after, but I continued to follow behind my grandparents, solemn and reverential. They sat on the grass in the middle of the backyard, hand in hand, gazing up at the night sky. I took a moment to pour a little gasoline on the quivering Pepe-mess that Uncle Ted carried around back on a shovel. I worried a little about nosy neighbors, but the surrounding six foot high fence left me relieved with knowledge that this would remain a private ceremony. Grandpa really did prepare as much as he was able to on his own.
I prepared to do what grandpa requested of me when Uncle Ted held me back with an outstretched arm. “Wait a minute, Tom,” he said. My uncle walked over to his parents and kneeled down behind and between them. He hugged them both for a very long time. When he finally let go, Uncle Ted asked, “Why would you do this, dad? Why would you put mom through this? It’s just so cruel and selfish to demand she come back for you like this.”
Grandpa turned to look at him, but grandma touched grandpa’s shoulder, then put Uncle Ted’s hands in hers. “Oh, Teddy. Sweet Teddy. I asked him for this. I was afraid of being alone, and I made him promise that we would move on together.” Grandma caressed her son’s face lovingly. “No one should ever have to leave this world alone.” She smiled at me and returned to watching the heavens with grandpa.
Uncle Ted walked back beside me and stood to my left. We were both crying, and we both understood. Grandpa and grandma sat there for a while, holding each other, then they looked back at us. They both smiled then, and after a pause, Grandpa nodded. I went to them with the gas cans, and I see that Uncle Ted followed me and remained at my side. I wondered if he was going to try to stop it from happening but, remaining silent, he took half of my responsibility upon his own shoulders.
We doused them both thoroughly, determined to do as we had been asked. Grandma rested her head on grandpa’s shoulder. I mustered the strength to see it through. My hands shook as I lit the match, fighting back tears as I set them both alight.
They didn’t scream; they didn’t even react to the flames as they burned. They sat together, holding each other close amidst the white-hot blaze, their heads raised toward the sky. Together, they burned to ash, their embers rising and dancing in the air, to be caught by the winds and carried away toward whatever came next.
Click image below to read Part V of
by Konstantine Paradias & Edward Morris
only on the FREEZINE of
Fantasy and Science