He was an army veteran. I used to ask him, during the few brief visits when I was younger, what he saw. He told me I was too young, to wait until I was older, so I did. By the time I was of age, he was old and weak.
“Do you scare easy?” he asked me, as his aged body fought cancer as hard as he fought in the war.
I was only supposed to bring him his soup. He lay in bed, and I stood nervously in the threshold of his door. The only light was that of the hallway leaking into the otherwise darkened room.
I shook my head.
“Blood flows,” he started, before coughing.
He dabbed his lips with his handkerchief and studied the flecks of blood, as if counting to see if there were more than last time, a biological countdown for his body and his disease.
“In the dark, when there’s no light to see, there’s nothing to distinguish it from water.”
He pulled himself upright and beckoned me closer.
“You may think of it as a tap someone has left running. It bothers you when it starts to drench you. Then you smell it. A metallic odour you taste, it makes your teeth hurt. The smell repulses you, you forget you’re covered in it. Then the tap is turned off, and the sound stops. It’s only then you realise, it wasn’t water.”
He coughed again.
“Blood is like glue. It’s sticky and it sets, as if it wants to cling to you for dear life, trying to find its way back inside, where it belongs, but it isn’t your blood. No amount of showering will remove it. It stays as a reminder of whose it once was. It becomes a part of you. You have to embrace that, if you don’t, it will only consume you.”
He stopped as abruptly as he started.
“Did that happen to you in the war?”
He smiled, erupting into a coughing fit of laugher, before again dabbing his mouth.
“History has a horrible penchant for repeating itself.”
He stared at me, ignoring the soup that grew cold on the tray in front of me.
“I’m going to die soon, Jack,” he said sincerely, it was as if his eyes welled up, but could’ve been a trick of the light, “I have something for you.”
“What is it, grandad?”
“Something important. I cannot give it to you. It will only be yours when the time is right. You’ll know when.”
I didn’t respond.
“I think the soup is getting cold,” he said, while giving me a wry smile.
Gingerly, I approached and placed it in front of him.
“Tomato, how apt,” he said, and began to sip.
Mother spoke to grandad every day on the phone. The nurses cared for him in the day. Then the phone calls stopped, I knew what it meant. Mother and father changed. They knew it was coming. Though nothing prepares you for when a family member dies, it doesn’t matter if you expected it.
I was old enough to be told straight, they said. I was a man now. He went in his sleep, and that’s all any of us could ever ask for.
Father returned home that day, late in the evening, with two books. He sat me down at the table and slid one over to me. To Jack with love was written in script on the front. It was a yellow book, it’s cover dogeared and dirty from many years of use. The other, For my son, an apology.
We looked down on them in silence. My grandad was a man of few words. He kept to himself, so to see such tomes sitting between us was a shock.
“Do you know anything about this?” my dad asked.
I shook my head, and as I did, I remembered what grandad said to me, that he had something for me, when the time was right.
“I didn’t get on with your grandad, you know that right?”
“You don’t have to read it if you don’t want, I’d completely understand.”
I picked up the book and left the dining table without a word spoken.
“Hey, Jack?” father said, “have you taken your pills?”
“Do it now, before you forget.”
I opened the cupboard and took two out of the packet and crunched them in my mouth. Father gave me a disapproving look.
I retreated to my room and sat on my bed, and opened the book.
3rd July 2001
Welcome to the family, Jack. I’m sorry I cannot be there with you, but I am in spirit.
Reading it gave me chills. That was the day I was born. It was ominous, as if he had written it for me to read after his death.
I hope you don’t turn out like your father, no disrespect, we are just different people.
There were some more entries, each for my birthdays up until when I was seven. They told me how proud he was of me, he’d seen photos, I was growing up to be a handsome boy.
3rd July 2008
It was wonderful to see you today. I’m very grateful your father afforded it of me. You asked me about the war. I couldn’t tell you; your father was listening. I hope this isn’t too late.
War is everything and it is nothing. I believe it made me who I am today, or at least accelerated it. I wasn’t always a bad man.
I’ve killed many people. Some by choice and some out of necessity. When it’s you or them, you can forgive yourself. It’s the ones that I’ve chosen that haunt me. Did I have to do it? Probably not. Would I do it again? I think I would.
There was a photo attached to this page. A black and white image of a younger man, I assume was my grandad, in fatigues, holding a gun, standing next to a dead body. There was a smirk on his face. I studied this and couldn’t tell if it was excitement or fear.
3rd July 2011
Your father told me what happened today. I’m not shocked to be honest. Kids do stupid things. He said he was proud of the way you dealt with it, as much as he could be. He blames me you know. He thinks I’ve been talking to you. I found that very funny. It was inevitable. It was written in the stars. I wish I could help you. I’ll make sure I can, one day.
That was my tenth birthday. I had no clue what he was referring to. He must have been mistaken. I tried to remember, but it wouldn’t come back to me. I made a mental note to ask father.
30th March 2012
You’re getting older, Jack. It’s important you exercise. I hope you do. I made your father at your age. I’d watch him out of the back window run around the yard. Fifty laps a day, rain or shine. It was important he was prepared physically. Fifty sit ups before breakfast is a good start. Then fifty squats and fifty push ups. It gets easy real quick. If you haven’t started, do that.
It was strange. I wasn’t sure if he was writing these entries for me then or now. I looked down at my scrawny arms, and slight gut, he was right, I needed to exercise.
1st December 2014
I made a mistake today, Jack. I had to call your father. I’m not as strong as I once was. I overstepped my boundaries. It’s easy to do. It was my own hubris. Your father’s a good kid. He’ll always be there for you, whatever you do, I can promise you that. Preparation is key. If you are prepared, your actions are guaranteed.
The next few entries were sprawled out over the next few years, and didn’t address me directly. It was as if they were written for someone else. The most interesting one was this.
31st October 2017
Thank you for visiting me, George. You were always fun. I’m surprised you didn’t remember why I had been mad at you for so many years. Bygones be bygones and whatnot. I appreciate you visiting. You can stay as long as you want, I know you will.
I wondered if grandad forgot this book was for me, and was meant to write this somewhere else. My reading was interrupted by arguing from downstairs. I snuck out of my bedroom to listen.
“What the hell!” my mother screamed.
“Keep your voice down,” my dad responded.
“We need to do something about it now.”
“Let me think.”
“What the hell do you have to think about?”
“It’s already happened, there’s no reason to panic.”
“If that’s what was in your book, what was in the one you gave to Jack?”
“It’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to call the police.”
“Don’t! Give me some space.”
The arguing abated.
I returned to my room and flicked forward in the book, stopping on an entry from last week. The following pages were blank.
14th November 2019
Jack, I’m going to die soon. I’m looking forward to seeing you next week, it was nice of your father to allow it. I hope I make it.
I wonder, what type of man you’ll become, whether you’ll take after me or your father. It’s important to remember he is a forgiving man. He forgave me, for who I was then and who I am now. You can tell him anything.
If you want to know who you are, I have something for you, in my house, if it’s not too late. I’ve been preparing for this.
I waited until I didn’t hear my parents anymore. I crept downstairs, seeing my father sleep in his armchair, mother was nowhere to be seen.
“Dad,” I asked him quietly, he stirred.
“What happened on my tenth birthday?”
Father was barely awake.
“No,” he said, scrunching his face up.
“Please, tell me, I need to know.”
He snorted heavily, his head bucking from side to side, as if caught in a nightmare.
Tears began to run down his cheeks.
“He was your brother.”
A cold sweat chilled me. I didn’t want to know anymore. I ran out of the house, and ran faster than my legs could keep up.
Simon. The name shouted itself to me in my head. I had no idea who that was. But something inside did, and it was crying out to be heard. I felt a nausea rise up in me and pushed the thoughts away.
I arrived at grandad’s house. It was now still and dark within. I searched around the plant pots looking for the spare key. It was where it always was. I opened the front door and rushed upstairs to his room.
His bed was made and grandad wasn’t there. I searched his drawers and cupboards for something that he would have left for me. He’d opened something from within that was long since dormant, and now I needed answers.
There was none. I felt panic.
I left his bedroom and stood on the landing, and saw it. A piece of paper stuck to the bathroom door, Jack.
With trepidation I opened it and entered. On the laundry basket was a single red towel, on top another note. Blood flows like water.
I guessed he wanted me to take a shower. Without thought, I undressed and got in, pulling the shower curtain around.
The water was ice cold. I closed my eyes and shivered, waiting for it to heat up. As it gradually did, I began to relax. I felt the warm water sooth my skin and resolve my panic. Then I smelt it.
A metallic odour that made my teeth hurt.
I opened my eyes, to see my body covered in a red liquid. I wanted to scream, but something inside calmed me, told me everything would be fine. I let the liquid run through my hair, down my face and onto my chest. For the first time in a while, I felt as if I was being true to me.
I stayed underneath until the shower ran dry. Then I looked down at myself, at the liquid that grabbed at my skin and refused to leave me. With my eyes open, on the mirror, in the shower cubicle, in the condensation, was a message.
Jack, is this the real you?
I pulled back the curtain. I picked up the towel and began to dry myself.
When I stood outside, in the cold, I ran my hand through my hair. A waft of copper rose up. I’d need to wash myself again.
I returned home and went straight to bed.
In the morning, I sat with my parents and ate breakfast.
“There’s something I need to tell you about your grandad, the police…” my father trailed off.
“I think I know,” I replied.
He didn’t appear shocked; a look of resignation flickered over his face.
“Don’t forget to take your pills,” my mother offered as she washed up.
I waited for her to leave before I spoke.
“I know why you give me those. I don’t want them anymore. Grandad said you’d understand.”
He let out a large sigh, and nodded his head.
“Finish your breakfast, you’ll be late for school.”
“I don’t think I can go today,” I said, he didn’t argue.
He got up and left the room.
Every breath I took, I could smell copper. It got right up in my nose. I showered for so long that morning too.
Father returned moments later, with a small pocket book.
“Before I give this to you, I need a promise, just like the promise I made to my father.”
“You follow what’s within this book to the letter. You deviate an inch and I fucking kill you, do you understand?”
I’d never heard him speak like that before. I understood.
He placed it on the table in front of me, and mother returned. She looked at the book and then to my father, then to me, her face white as a ghost.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said to my father.
“He’s only eighteen.”
“Father said he was, I cannot disobey him.”
“He’s not,” father said, running his hand through my hair and then sniffing it.
I looked down at the book.
The book was yellow and dogeared from years of use.
“That was my mine, and now it’s yours,” father said to me.
I opened and turned to first page.
Rule 1 – Never kill a family member.