Mind the Shadows

1

I watched him half-waddle-half-teeter along from the kitchen to the living room where he would sit in his favorite chair.  He looked so frail.  It seemed a light breeze could knock him off his feet.  He wheezed slightly with the effort he made to keep his 87-year old body moving toward his chosen destination.  I knew at that moment that my grandfather would not be with me for much longer.  His body wouldn’t allow it.

But his spirit and mind were vigorous and sharp.  One look at his eyes told anyone that he suffered no fool. Grandpa was as aware of his surroundings now as on his seventeenth birthday, seven decades ago.  His wit was quick, and often sharp.  Almost nothing got by without his notice.  He would tell you he wasn’t a very smart guy.  I knew different.  I also knew I would miss him…

Grandpa sat down with visible relief and a loud sigh.  I grabbed his afghan from the end table and draped it over his stick-like legs. He refused to wear anything but shorts… who knows why.  His gnarled hands grabbed the end of the blanket so he could situate it to his liking.  He nodded his thanks as he worked to catch his breath.

“Grandpa, you want me to get you a drink or something?”

Grandpa appeared to give it some thought and replied, “How about some 30-year old scotch, neat; and a buxom blonde to keep me company?”

He was deadly serious…  I think… for about 2 seconds.  Then he cackled at his own joke, and the sound – while sharp and annoying to many ears – was full of warmth and humor to mine.

“I’m fine, Marek. Now get outa here and have some fun with your friends.  I’m gonna plug in for a bit.  You’ll probably hafta unplug me when ya get home, though.”  He said the last with a grin like a teenager that just found out his parents were heading out for the evening.  He chuckled to himself and winked at me as he plugged the fiber cable into his neural jack.

I couldn’t help smiling in turn.  “Alright then, I’m headed out.  Ping me if you need anything.  We’ll be at Jammer’s or at Eat ‘Em Up down the street from his place, so I won’t be far away.”

Grandpa nodded and waved nonchalantly.  Just as I reached to open the door, though, he called out to me.  I looked over my shoulder to see his good humor had disappeared as quickly as it had come.  He spoke in a very serious tone, “Mind the shadows, boy.  Always mind the shadows.”

I had no doubt that he was deadly serious and suddenly concerned for some reason.  That concern was about so much more than me walking those 5 blocks to Jammer’s, too.  I think he knew…

2

I was scared shitless.  I was watching another human being burn right in front of me.  His flesh was crackling as the flames consumed him like a ravenous animal.  His screams – much higher pitched than I would have thought possible – stopped in a couple of seconds as his vocal cords were cooked to a crisp.  Then only a quiet rasp could be heard… his last attempt to make his anguish heard.

To this day, I am thankful I was upwind.  The few wisps of smoke I did whiff from the turbulent air around him were sickening.  Part of my mind processed the smell as something appetizing, I think…  After all, it was flesh being cooked, right?  How disgusting…  I still shiver at the thought. Then there was the stench of the boiling fluids oozing out of him along with the various materials of his burning clothes. It was beyond sickening.  Somehow, I managed not to puke…

I can’t forget that night, either.  No matter the amount of time passed and things I have seen since, I can remember watching that mugger spontaneously catch fire and burn right in front of me as if it were last night.  The Old Man told me that I would never forget my first kill.  He was right. The details are still with me in living color.

There was more to it than that, though.  I knew I had made this guy burst into flames. I had willed it to happen.  I had to wrap my head around that fact.  I had to come to terms with the fact that something I thought was fantasy and imagination was…  well, it was reality.

3

The adrenaline was wearing off. I was feeling twitchy and nauseous.  I scared from being attacked for sure, but it’s not every day you watch somebody spontaneously combust right in front of you.  Something inside me was also still… sparking.  There was an energy inside me that I didn’t understand.  I felt tingles in my arms and legs.  My chest felt like it was vibrating, but it wasn’t my heart. It was pounding just fine.  I could tell there was something different between what I was feeling and having some sort of coronary episode. I felt…

Then I suddenly realized I was aware of everything around me, and I mean VERY aware.  Sight, smell and sound had become so vivid and present.  I was a block from Jammer’s – an area I had walked through hundreds of times – and it was like a completely new place to me.  It was the middle of the night.  It was an empty street just like any other night, right? Not even close…

I could hear a low gurgle; the flow of the sewage through the pipe well below the center of the street.  There was a cat hiding in the dark recesses of a storm drain entrance in the curb on the opposite corner.  I could hear its breathing and see the soft glow of its retinas as it watched me from its hiding spot; no way I could have seen that on a normal night.  I could feel the warmth of the pavement – heat absorbed from the sun earlier that day – radiating back into the night.  The smells – probably the cause of my continued nausea – were so strong.  I had never noticed them like that before. I was picking up the stink of the sewage below the street.  The odors of rotting food – among other things – in the dumpsters down the alley were invading my nostrils like a freight train, along with the musky scent of the rats that rummaged through those dumpsters.  These odors were all amplified and distinct beyond any level I could believe.  There was so much more, too… the buzz of street lights, the soft rumble of the sidewalk and street as the subway went by underground SIX BLOCKS AWAY… wow. I was so overwhelmed.

“Good morning,” exclaimed a raspy, high-pitched voice from behind me.  I should have jumped right out of my skin at that moment, but something held me in check.  I’m not sure I was even startled, and I was not any more afraid than I had been before he appeared.  The old man’s sudden presence did not add to what I was already trying to process.  Oddly enough, I was actually rational enough to wonder why he had wished me a good morning in the middle of the night.  Crazy, huh?

“I’ll tell you why, young man.  You just woke up.”  He grinned from ear to ear; looking like what he said should have just explained it all to me. And yet, I was still clueless.

I took advantage of the strangely rational part of my mind and responded, “Good morning to you, too, I guess.  But I’m not sure it’s even midnight yet.”  I was starting to scratch my head by that point.  Rational or not, I was still confused about what all had just happened.  I was in a state of heightened awareness due to an unexplained amplification of my senses.  I was coming down from the biggest adrenaline rush I had ever felt in my life to date; being mugged and subsequently willing your assailant to burn to death is a rather traumatic experience. AND this strange old man had managed to show up right after this fiasco to wish me a good morning, in spite of the fact that it was clearly still night.  I still wonder to this day if moments like that are of uncommon clarity, complete confusion or just stark raving insanity.

“Why thank you, good sir,” he responded with good cheer.  He sounded a lot like my grandpa.  He looked to be about the same age as my grandpa, too.  “I guess you’re right,” he continued, “It’s not morning.  But for you it might as well be morning.  I think we should take this conversation somewhere else, though. Someone is about to report a burnt body laying on the street corner to the police.  You and I should really talk about… this… as soon as possible, and being here when the cops show up will make that a problem.”  Just like Grandpa, he had gone from almost happy-go-lucky to deadly serious in one breath.  Still not sure just what the hell was going on; I opted to follow the Old Man down the alley with the stinking, rat-infested dumpsters.

4

I got home about 7 the next morning.  I had spent the rest of the night talking with the Old Man about what had happened to me and how I made that guy burn to death.  I knew I should’ve gone home sooner, but I had gotten some of my questions answered, and he was starting to teach me about how to deal with my “situation”.  The Old Man was more than willing to help me work through what was happening.  He even mentioned something to the effect that he was supposed to help me.  I didn’t get that, but I was glad I had somebody to talk with who appeared to have some understanding of what was going on, AND who believed me.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I got to the apartment door.  I thumbed the lock to release it and eased the door open hoping not to wake Grandpa.  That wasn’t an issue, though.  Grandpa was in his recliner – right where I left him – with a peaceful expression on his face.  He wasn’t breathing.  I think I sensed it before I could see him.  I knew my grandpa was gone.  I could tell he had been gone for a while.  The apartment was so quiet.  His presence was no longer there.  Even when he was out or sleeping, our place had never felt this empty.

I pinged emergency services and let the man on that answered know what I had found.  I guess what I described and the questions he asked was enough to help him decide there was no real emergency. The dispatcher calmly informed me that an ambulance would be there shortly, and then he offered his routine condolences.  He asked if I needed any help dealing with my loss.  I told him that I didn’t think so.  He messaged me a number and address for a city-funded place that offered counseling.  I thanked him and disconnected so I could wait for the ambulance.

I’m not sure how long it took for the ambulance to arrive, but I suppose it was longer than normal.  I don’t remember any sirens or sense of urgency from the paramedics.  In fact, I was still standing just inside the door when they arrived.  I suppose now it was good that I had had the presence of mind to call the ambulance in the first place, because at some point right after that I went blank.

Emotional shock happens to folks in different ways for different things.  Losing my grandfather must have hit an “off” button somewhere in my head.  I didn’t feel anything.  I couldn’t think.  It was almost a trance-like state.  I guess my mind retreated from what I was facing to try and process things.  I might have stood there like that for a while if I hadn’t called for help.

The paramedics announced themselves, but I didn’t move.  The one had to touch me on the shoulder to get any acknowledgment.  He asked me to move so they could get themselves and their equipment into the apartment.  I must have had just enough mental horsepower to move a couple of steps out of the way.  They came in with their gear.  The first thing they did was pull what looked like a memory stick from their kit and install it on Grandpa’s Netbox.  I guess I made an inquisitive gesture or noise because the one paramedic turned and told me it was routine when they encountered someone who had passed while jacked into the Net.  I guess I was satisfied with the explanation because I returned to my blank gaze.  In truth I don’t remember any of the explanation.

“Marek?  Is that your name, son?”

I started a bit as I came back from wherever my mind had gone to hide.  I focused on the paramedic that was now standing right in front of me with his hand on my arm and finally responded, “Yeah, I’m Marek.  I’m his grandson.”

The paramedic smiled and looked genuinely sympathetic to my situation.  He tried to be as consoling as possible and explained, “Your grandpa is gone, son.  It looks like his heart simply stopped beating about 10:30pm last night.  We checked the Netbox to see if he was connected to anything that might have frightened him or otherwise would have helped cause this, but we found nothing like that.  It’s routine for us to do that to help verify cause of death when a person is jacked in.  He was just listening to music – jazz, I think – and reading an article from a news feed about a robbery on the other side of town.  My partner scanned him, and everything indicates that his body just quit on him.  I’m sorry, Marek.”

“I should have been here.  I just got home a bit ago.” I was starting to feel something.  It wasn’t good.

“There is nothing you could have done, Marek.  He passed quickly and painlessly.  Not even on our best days could we have gotten here quick enough to try and help him, and we could not have helped him anyway.  It was just his time.”

I was starting to show signs of my distress.  I could not respond to thank the paramedic.

He patted my shoulder and asked, “Is there someone I can call to come and help you with this?  You’re not looking too good right now.”

I lifted my wrist and tapped the little screen.  I was starting to shake and couldn’t even bring up my call list.  The paramedic did it for me and scrolled through until I nodded at Jammer’s number.  He activated his own com-data unit and told it to call Jammer’s number.  He had a short conversation with Jammer to explain the situation.  Then he told me that Jammer was on his way over.

Apparently during my mental shutdown, the paramedics had done their work, packed up their gear, unplugged the N.I. cable from Grandpa and moved him onto a gurney.  The other paramedic covered him with a sheet and announced, “We’re ready to move him, boss.”

“Okay, give me a sec.”  The guy standing with me turned back toward me and said, “Let’s get you over here so you can sit.  Your friend will be here soon.   We need to take your grandpa’s body out of here.  You will get a message with instructions for claiming personal effects and making preparations for a funeral or whatever you need to do with his body.”  I could tell this was NOT the favorite part of his job.  He obviously hated trying to explain the dry details of something like this to a person that had just lost a loved one.  He tried to smile again and added, “Hey, let your friend help you.  It will make things easier for you.  And remember, this was not your fault, son. It was just his time.”

By that point, the paramedic had guided me over to the couch and had me sitting. He patted me one more time on the shoulder then turned back to his partner to help him move Grandpa’s body down to the ambulance.

Jammer showed up a short time after the paramedics took Grandpa away.  He burst through the partially open door breathing hard from running. In typical Jammer fashion, he stood just inside the doorway for a moment to take everything in.  If you gave the guy a moment to look around an area, he could take it all in and recite what he had seen in minute detail for days afterward.  He didn’t miss much.

“Wassup, Marek?”

I managed to turn my head enough to look at him.  I must have looked like I was about to melt down – an apparent reflection of how I was starting to feel on the inside.  That “off” button was no longer working.  My thoughts and feelings were flooding back.  None of it was good.

He moved over and sat down next to me on the couch.  He looked me right in the eyes. I could tell he wasn’t sure what to say or do.  He decided to say something; “Silly ass question, but are you okay, man?”  Jammer was not trying to ask a stupid question.  He just didn’t know what to ask, and was trying to say anything to ease the discomfort he was feeling seeing me like that and to get me talking.  We were the best of friends – and arguably pretty close, but we had never faced anything this emotionally tasking together. He was a few years older than me and had gotten past his rough upbringing as an orphan. He had learned to be on his own before we knew each other.  I had lost my mom when I was little more than a baby, and my father died before I was born. So, Grandpa was my one parent and only family.  Other than telling each other about our history and unconsciously bonding on that level, Jammer and I didn’t know how to face a situation where one of us was emotionally distraught like this.

It was starting to hit me hard, too.  “No, bro…  I don’t… I’m… not okay.”  I could feel the sobs trying to escape.  Grandpa was gone.  He was the only family I had, and he was not there anymore.  I was pretty scared as it was. Finding out I could kill somebody by thinking about it hard enough was bad enough, but now I had to come to terms with losing Grandpa on top of that.

Jammer did the best he knew how.  He tentatively put his arm around me and let me cry.  He wasn’t going to let his discomfort get in the way of trying to help his friend.

5

Grandpa’s funeral was small.  Jammer, a couple of our mutual friends and I were the only people there.  I had him cremated per the request in his documented last wishes.  I did not allow an obituary to be published – another request of his.  We finished the day at the Eat ‘Em Up down the street from Jammer’s place.  We had a meal prescribed by Grandpa in his last wishes document.  As always, Grandpa knew things that helped; even when he wasn’t there.  We were stuffed by the end of it, but all of us thanked Grandpa for some great choices and some awesome custom tweaks to the order.  V’urp’s thanks was, as usual, the loudest.

I spent the next week getting “family affairs” in order.  Jammer proved over and over that he was my best friend.  He worked by my side to make sure everything was transitioned from Grandpa to me with as little distress as possible.  He listened when I talked about Grandpa.  He stuck around while I grieved and made sure I had sustenance.  Losing my only family was not easy on me, and eating was not high on the list of things going through my head at the time.  Getting through the loss of Grandpa would have been so much more difficult without my buddy Jammer.

Grandpa’s will was straightforward.  He left everything he had to me.  He remarked that while it wasn’t much, he trusted me to make it work until I got going on my own.  The apartment was paid off and under a low-tax clause from when it was purchased.  The will contained a short list of account numbers and passwords for his savings and investments.  He had put my name on everything to make it easier for me to access the credits I was going to need until I got a better job.  He also had a safety deposit box at the local bank branch that he had encoded to open for him and me.  He mentioned I should get to that sooner than later. As I said earlier, Jammer was invaluable getting all this straight.

I went to the bank where Grandpa kept his safety deposit box.  Grandpa must have had something he thought valuable enough to keep locked in a vault.  I was a little apprehensive, but I was a little amused, too.  He never mentioned what might have been in the box.  Like I said, apprehensive.  I had no idea what I would find.  The humor part came from knowing Grandpa.  Whatever was in the box, something in it was likely to be interesting to say the least.

After going through the identification process with a bank employee, I was escorted to the vault to get the box.  I was then shown to a private room to examine the contents of the box.  So, I took a deep breath, settled down in the desk chair and opened the box.

I was right about the amusement.  The first thing I found was a stack of 6 printed pictures of pin-up girls.  All of them were, in Grandpa’s words, “Buxom blondes.”  I got a good chuckle, especially when I saw the note on the back of the last picture that said, “Marek, keep these safe for me.  These are very valuable.  Well, they’re valuable to the right dirty old man anyway.”  Since I was planning on keeping the box for those ‘just in case’ reasons, I put them back in the box in a neat stack.

The next thing I found was a ring box.  In the ring box was a memory card and a couple of folded pieces of paper with Grandpa’s handwriting on them.  Once I unfolded them, the top piece of paper instructed me to take the memory card and the letter (the second piece of paper) with me.  I was supposed to read the letter and access the memory card – in that order- at home.  I thought that was kind of strange, but I figured Grandpa had his reasons for this.  It was also strange realizing that he had done this before he died.  He had set all this up for me knowing I would not see any of this until he was gone.  I took it as proof again of how good my Grandpa had been to me and how much I was going to miss him.

I headed back to the apartment with the ring box and its odd contents in my jacket pocket.  I was feeling down again.  Going through the safety deposit box had left me grateful for Grandpa’s foresight, but pretty sad about his absence  But a welcome distraction came just before I got home in the form of a ping from Jammer.  He informed me that he was coming over with dinner and had some software to put on my Net box.  I told him I was almost there after going to the bank and would welcome both him and the food.

After a good meal of Asian cuisine from the Chinese joint Jammer hit up about twice a week, I turned over my Net box to him and grabbed a seat in Grandpa’s chair to read the letter.  I opened the little box and took out the letter:

Marek,

If you’re reading this, then I’m no longer with you.  Scratch that… I guess I’m at the apartment with you, but in an urn… heh, heh, heh.  I’ll be easier to take care of this way <wink, wink>.  I hope that I went out with a scotch in one hand and a buxom blonde on my lap.  I know, wishful thinking <wink again>.

You need to know that I’m very proud of you and love you very much.  I wish I could have done more for you, but it just wasn’t meant to be.  We did the best we could with our situation, and it wasn’t bad.  I missed your mother every day of my life. But getting to see some of her in you as you grew up helped out a great deal.  I also know that you’ll be just fine without me.  I have no doubt about that at all.  I think I raised you right because you’ve turned out to be one hell of a good young man.

It’s okay that you might be missing me and a little scared right now.  I’m guessing that I’ll miss you, too.  But I don’t want you to stop living.  In fact, I want you to get out there and go for better than we had.  You always said that I wasn’t a burden, but we both know that you were not working hard enough on your future because you felt obligated to take care of me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate it, but that’s no longer an issue.  If you want to do right by me now, move on.  I don’t want you sitting around missing me every day.  You’ve got too much going for you to keep moving at OUR pace.  You got a lot of life ahead of you.  Make something of it.

One last thing you need from me. I hope it’ll be enough…  As you have already seen, I left you a memory card in that ring box.  It has a list of Net locations, some with logins and passwords.  You need to read the articles and then access the sites to retrieve the information I’ve stashed there.  There are things in those articles and that information you need to help get your life… in order.  I wish I could have stuck around a little longer to help you with this, but I guess that just didn’t work out.  You weren’t ready yet.  Now you have no choice but to be ready.  Like I told you when you left for Jammer’s that night, mind the shadows.  Always mind the shadows.

Yours,

Grandpa

Wow.  That was all I could say or think after I read that.  I let Jammer read it to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind.  What the hell was Grandpa talking about?  What did he mean by “the shadows”?  What wasn’t I ready for?  I knew there would be some jokes and some sentiment in that note, but I never figured on that last part. Jammer read and I sat there slack-jawed.  Wow.

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13 thoughts on “Mind the Shadows”

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