Pop was everything I thought was great about the world: funny stories and being able to whistle any tune you wanted.
He had two large aquariums that lined his basement wall. He said he walked right into the store and asked the young lady what were the largest tanks she could sell him. Their largest was about the size of a bathtub, but she would be happy to give him the number of a gentleman who specialized in custom jobs. It wasn’t long after that Pop was populating his new room-lining aquariums with fake coral and little, plastic sunken ships.
He reached into a tank with his little green net and scooped up an orange-shouldered tang. It resisted, flipping and wiggling its way out of the net before he could pin it against the glass and drag it up. I held my breath as he lifted my favorite fish above the water.
He said everything was okay, and he wasn’t going to keep it out long. He brought it close to my face and asked if I wanted to touch it. I didn’t, yet my finger inched towards it. It was scaly and slimy, and wiggled at my touch.
“Can you put him back?” I asked. “I don’t want him to die.”
He smiled and set it back, but not in the same tank he took it from.
“I’ll let him explore a new home. How does that sound?”
I said it sounded like a good idea, as long as he could live to see another tank.
The tang plopped into the water and swam like the past minutes of terror never happened, and I relaxed.
Pop and I retreated to his recliner, and I let him hold me while I began dozing off in the blue light.
“Laura, can I tell you a secret?” he asked. “I have never told anyone this before, but I am just like that little fish. Imagine instead of going from tank to tank, I end up going one life to another.”
I was confused. He told me the worlds he saw were just like the one I knew except little things were different. I remember one he told me about, a world that had steering wheels in the center of every car. Every example sounded like he was making it up, and when I asked how many different places there were he said I could spend my whole life counting them and never get close to the end.
“That’s what makes me so special. I’ve gotten to see all the different ways my life could have turned out,” he said. “I’m the same fish, hopping from one tank to another.”
Mom yelled down that it was time for lunch. She had been in her old room all weekend. It sounded like she was crying when I listened on the other side of her door last night. She now wore sunglasses that covered her eyes.
In the car I told her what Pop said and all the ways he could have lived, and she sighed, gave him a dirty look, and explained how he was only teasing.
“Scout’s honor,” he said, raising a hand and connecting his pinky and thumb. “I cannot tell a lie.”
He said there were never any signs to when it happened. It was as easy as walking down the street or getting out of bed. He looked over his shoulder and told me he had once gone to the bathroom, and when he came back out, the couch was a different color.
He pulled a piece of yarn off his wrist and handed it back to me. He said it was the most important parts of the whole process.
“I’ve been very careful to tie a different color everywhere I go. That way I won’t get lost.”
Mom cleared her throat loudly and looked at me in the rearview mirror. She wanted me to be quiet, but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t being rude or disrespectful.
Pop continued talking at lunch, while Mom didn’t touch her food. Maybe it had been building or maybe just a snap decision, but Mom grabbed my arm and dragged me out of my chair and through the restaurant. I could feel my heartbeat inside my wrist. I felt my shoulder almost snap out of its socket. Once we were at the bathrooms, she knelt down and put her face very close to mine.
“No more talking to Pop about his stories for the rest of the day. Do you understand me?” she said.
What had I done wrong? I wanted to protest or cry right there and make a scene, but my body couldn’t.
“When we get back, I want you to tell him you are sorry for bothering him with all your questions.”
I half-heartedly apologized when we returned, and Pop didn’t say much. He must have known I was in trouble. No one drags their child away like that for a reward.
The car ride home was quiet. Pop tried to turn the radio on, but Mom nipped that in the bud and the whole interaction made me feel like we landed in a world where she was the parent instead of him.
Pop started breathing hard when we got back to his house. He grabbed his stomach and bent over.
“Dad?” Are you ok?” Mom asked.
“Fine. I think I need to lay down.”
Mom went to the medicine cabinet and started rummaging through; heaps of half-filled bottles came toppling over and onto the floor. She swore loudly enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. Before I could begin to get up and help, she grabbed her keys, put a finger in my face, and said, “Behave. I’ll be back soon.” I stuck my tongue out at her as she closed the door.
I dragged my feet over to the couch to tell Pop Mom had left, and he dropped the arm that was covering his face.
“Can I tell you a secret?” he said for the second time that day. “I know your mother has been upset lately, so I thought we all could benefit from a little space.” He winked and patted the couch next to him. I climbed up.
Now that the coast was clear, I asked more questions: “What was the strangest thing you ever saw?” I imagined green clouds or cars flying like airplanes.
“Coming down the stairs when I was eight and seeing my mother cooking hot dogs for breakfast. I never found out why, but they tasted well enough.”
He told me he didn’t think it would ever happen to me, he was the only special one. I wondered if there were worlds where he was the one that passed on and started to get sad. I didn’t like thinking of death at that age. My eyes had an emotional response that became a runaway train. I couldn’t stop.
He pulled me close and rubbed my head, telling me that everything was all right. He liked to say that. It made me cry harder to be held. Strange how that happens sometimes. Maybe everything that weekend had been too much.
Mom came back and I heard her ask what was the matter.
Pop mouthed something and she didn’t ask again. She came over and joined us on the couch. I think she cried a little too.
It’s not always big changes. Last week, for example, it was only a coffee cup that I set on the piano. When I turned around it was gone. I checked the usual places: sink, coffee table, and my left hand. Turns out it was in the freezer. It must have been in there a long time because it was already frozen.
Who knows when I started hopping through time and space? Perhaps when I was a child, but memories from childhood aren’t continuous anyway. We make them up.
Laura’s grandmother, Lillian, passed on a few days ago. Susan took it hard, saying she’d get Laura out of school and come up immediately. I told her that wasn’t necessary, and I’d be fine until Friday when all of the pageantry started.
The days were hard, but I wasn’t in my own place / time. Five hours were spent in Fiji (navy blue bracelet), and three days in rural Indiana (no present bracelet, but I found some white and green yarn and braided it together).
Laura seems sad. I show her my fish tank and tell her about each one, making up what I don’t actually know about fish. I bought it for her when I realized everything in this house is for old folks. She taps the glass, and I imagine she’s thinking of Lillian, but what do I know? I’m lucky because I will still see her in other places. As far as I know, she’s still around in yellow, red, and purple & black. It’s unfair I have to watch her leave three more times.
“Laura,” I whisper, unsure if she’s fallen asleep on my lap.
“What is it, Pop?” she asks.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
She lights up for the first time all weekend. How do I tell her everything? I settle on a little at a time, but just as things are getting good, Susan calls us back to the real world. I swear she’s just like her mother, the way she tells us to get ready.
“We’ll finish this later,” I tell her.
Susan doesn’t look okay. She’s been in her room since she arrived, crying and sleeping. Laura tried to go see her, but she was publicly scolded. I assigned myself to keep her as busy as I could. Just to give everyone some space and relief.
The car ride is tense and I don’t want to upset Sue, but Laura keeps asking to talk.
“Scout’s honor,” I say, swearing to tell her the whole truth. Sue gives me a look to tell me I am quickly running out of free passes for my jokes this weekend. My own child is disciplining me.
Lunch is the same place we always go when they are in town. It’s full of old people, and today is the first day I look around and worry if that’s how I look. Sometimes when I go to other places, I am young again. There were times I was older, but nowadays, it’s tough being older than I already am.
The food arrives and Laura is already interrupting her mother as saying grace is being proposed. I wish I could have told her to hush in time, but Sue is already up and dragging Laura through the restaurant, and I’m gone, sitting on the front porch of a beautiful, Midwestern house with Marie, talking about the new tractor her brother bought. The sun is setting behind the dog we never really named, still puttering around after 12 years.
I’m back at the table seconds before Sue and Laura make it back, and I check my bracelet to make sure I am where I need to be.
Laura apologizes. I pretend I don’t know what for and tell her she never has to apologize to me. She is now upset and lunch is full of brooding people, silently scraping forks and knives across their plate.
I want to tell Laura everything now. I don’t know when I’ll leave this world to never pop back and finish. Will she believe me? Probably not, but maybe it will sit with her for a while and everything will make sense one day. I can’t let the only version of her grandfather she hears come from her mother. I’ve probably messed up enough with Susan that it’s too late for her to look at me with love and innocence like she used to. Or maybe there is always a chance to change what happens. I couldn’t always be there because I wasn’t always there. I didn’t like it, but I could never control it.
I pretend I’m dying, and Susan is almost bolting out the door to grab me medicine. Laura comes over and I do my best to finish telling her about everything. She asks questions— some humorous and some hard. I do everything I can to answer them correctly. But then they end up where most curious, little minds do: death. I watch her think about it all and fail to land the mental gymnastics that is required to think about death without getting sad. She’s crying, not small tears but the wailing and gnashing Jesus warned about. I hold her and decide we are done with conversations about things that ten year olds shouldn’t have to concern themselves with, and I’m mad at myself for thinking it was a good idea.
Sue walks in, and I am sure she is going to start screaming at me. Her child is inconsolable, and she’s probably on the verge of tears too. I move my lips to say it’s because of grandma. She doesn’t get upset or yell, just sits on the couch and hugs Laura. She kisses her head and tells her that everything is going to be all right. I feel her relax and put a head on my shoulder. I don’t want to go anywhere right now. I am happy right here in this place and time, but things never stay where they are, do they?
My father has never been easy on us. When I was young, he cheated on my mother. No one made a big stink about it, but it tore everything apart. The other woman lived on a farm in Indiana, so he could go get away from prying eyes whenever he wanted to.
When I look at him now, I barely see the same man. He sits in is chair staring off. The doctor told me his memories are slowly slipping away as his brain gives up the goat. He won’t lose essential bodily functions until about five years down the line, though. Until then, his stories just have to get more and more fantastic.
Mom really loved me and I loved her so her passing was harder on me than anyone else. Dad took care of Laura when I couldn’t, but it was a weekend where I had to be the grownup of the family. Playtime has to come to an end when the preacher is talking about your parent’s last moments.
I snapped at them both at lunch after I spent all day on the phone with people asking for how they could help and when they can bring my dad casseroles and grocery store tea. I locked myself in my old room all week in order to get some things done and find a little privacy.
Dad was spacing out when I got back from scolding Laura at lunch. It was almost as if I could see the memory leave him and go to the void. I wondered who he was forgetting this time. Me? The other woman?
Laura half-assed an apology and it became a moment as a parent to decide if you were going to push for more or take all you could get. I chose the easier route.
When Dad gets sick back at home, I don’t question it but leave as soon as I can before I can get upset again. It’s good to get away. When was the last time I really got away from it all? I roll the windows down and let the wind hit my face and remind me that I’m not the dead one.
I thank the teenager behind the drug store counter for the antacid medicine, look at the MilkyWay bars near my hands and wonder if I could steal one and never be caught. Maybe I want to get caught, so someone else can make all the plans.
Unfortunately, the drug store is less than a mile away from Dad’s so I circle the block and passed by houses that looked the same as when I lived here. When I finally make it inside, I see Laura crying. She’s upset about something, and Dad looks over her head on his chest and mouths “Grandma”.
I should have realized it would be have been better for Laura to be preoccupied with Dad’s stupid little stories than feel what it’s like to lose a grandmother. I join them on the couch and rub her back the way she liked when she was a toddler. I do my best impression of a waterfall to calm her down.
I never saw Dad choke up about mom. He was at peace with her being dead, I suppose. He told me he’d see her very soon in between the times he spaced out and would lose another memory to whatever was inside his head.
Nathan lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia where he currently teaches high school mathematics. His short fiction has appeared online and in print, and he is currently working on a novel.