My grandfather just died. As sad as I was about the entire thing, I can’t say that I was truly surprised. The man was old. Even if he didn’t act like it, he was able to walk and run with the best of them, but the fact of the matter remains: no matter how healthy you are, eventually your body just gets too old and too tired to continue. I understood this. I worked in a hospital and dealt with death almost every day. It was nothing new. Death was an old friend at this point. My family was a mess however. Everyone except grandma. She had never been much for emotion anyway. Grandpa was the fun loving, always laughing or smiling, quick to play the practical joke type while grandma…she was quiet. In my entire 26 years of living, I don’t think I have seen her smile even once.
She faded into the background most of the time, but you could always catch her looking. She was always watching. Seemed like she was waiting for something. My entire childhood, she always had this distance about her. Like we could never get close enough to see the real her. I never felt much of a relationship with my grandmother. She was friendly enough, but it was more like the fake friendly you put on when you’re around people you don’t actually like, but can tolerate.
It sucked that she wasn’t the warm and fuzzy grandma that you see in the television shows and movies. She didn't bake cookies and kiss boo-boos. She was the exact opposite, she was cold and uninviting like a hospital room. It never mattered much before now, because we always had grandpa to close the distance and warm up the room. Now that he’s gone, I can only imagine that things won’t be the same.
Maybe that’s why the family was so broken up about it. They all knew that with grandpa gone, there would be no one there to bring balance to things. This would most likely be out last visit. I looked over at my mother, who was quietly sorting through grandpa’s clothes. We had just arrived from the funeral and wanted to get a head start on helping grandma pack up his things. By “help” what I mean is, we would do the work while she watched quietly from the other side of the room. Only speaking when directly spoken to. If I’m being totally honest, it can be a little creepy sometimes. Like right now. I was lost in thought, but came to only to realize that she was looking at me. Studying me. What is she thinking?
“How you doin’ grams? Can I get you anything?” I offered a smile. She didn’t return it.
“No, I’m fine. You two are doing all the work. Let me go ahead and make you something to eat.”
“No. We’re not hungry.” My mother snapped, from where she stood in grandpa’s closet.
We both turned to look in her direction. Mom and grandma had a strained relationship at best and a volatile one at worst. Grandma stood quietly for a second before making her way into the kitchen anyway.
“Well fine. But you should at least get something to drink to stay hydrated.” As soon as she left the room, I walked over to my mother and tapped her shoulder to get her attention. She turned and smiled sadly at me, grandpa’s favorite sweatshirt in her hands. “I think I’m going to keep this. It still smells like him.” I watched as she lifted the sweatshirt to her nose and took a deep breath. It was a bit weird to me, but people process death in different ways. Who am I to judge that?
“Ma, you could cut grandma some slack. I know she’s a bit cold, but she did just lose her husband.”
“And I just lost my Father! She didn’t care about that man. Don’t be fooled.” Mom was a Daddy’s girl for sure, but I never understood why her and grandma never got along. It was something that happened before I was born that they refuse to talk about. No matter how hard I tried to figure out this secret between the three of them, no one would budge. It was the one thing they could agree on. Don’t tell Luca. I shook my head went back to sorting through grandpa’s documents. My cousin Sheila was in the other room collecting his books. Everyone else had left after the funeral, no one wanted to deal with grandma.
I had just cleaned through a small section of bills when grandma reentered the room carrying one of her favorite glasses. She handed it to me. I took a sip and placed it down on the desk beside me. There were so many papers and documents to look through, and I didn’t want to get behind. I only had a few days to tackle this stuff before I was due back at the hospital. She stood for a moment and watched me.
“I do appreciate you doing this. It would have taken me so long to get through all of it by myself.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it slightly. There was a warmth in her touch that didn't reach her eyes. I smiled up at her and shrugged. It really was no problem. It helped me feel closer to grandpa one last time.
“No problem grams. You know I got you girl.” She shook her head at my feeble attempt to make her smile and turned towards my mother. “Denise if you’re thirsty, I’ve got more juice in the fridge.” Mom didn’t even turn around from where she was buried deep in grandpa’s closet. We both heard her muffled voice in response. “No. I’m fine.” Grandma shrugged and went to go check on Sheila.
I took another sip of the juice she gave me. Honestly, it was a little bitter to taste, but it was probably just because it was close to its expiration date. Older folks love keeping stuff until it’s finished as long as it doesn’t smell bad or taste bad, that expiration date is just a suggestion. As I reached for another stack of papers on the desk, my knee grazed something under it. I reached down to see if I could locate what I had just hit with me knee. My fingers touched the corner of what felt like a drawer. A secret compartment? What was grandpa hiding under here? I tugged a little and the opening gave way.
Out popped a green notebook and a manila folder actually addressed to me. I grabbed both, and sat back in the chair. In the corner of the manila envelope it read:
Luca, open this in the event of my death. Tell no one. My hands trembled a bit. Was he finally going to tell me why things were so tense in this family? I blinked a little, chugged the last of my juice, and opened the letter. “What is that?” I jumped a little at the sound of my mother’s voice directly behind me.
“Grandpa wrote me a letter. Probably just information on how to pay their bills and access their accounts. You know grandma was never good with that stuff.” I don’t know why I lied about it. I guess it’s because the letter instructed me not to tell anyone and the least I could do was honor his dying wish. Mom shrugged, disinterested, and went back into his closet. I really wasn’t sure why she was so invested in that closet. The man was old and so was his style. I stood up, with shaky legs and made my way to the guest bedroom and closed the door. If I was going to read whatever was in this, I needed to make sure I had privacy. I fanned myself a little, suddenly hot. I was definitely going to have to take a look at how the air circulated in this room. It was so stuffy and I was starting to sweat. Although maybe that was because I was suddenly anxious.
I opened the letter, blinking a few times to clear my vision. My wife had been bothering me about getting my prescription glasses checked out, but I hadn’t had the time. I blinked again, narrowing my eyes to focus on the words. First thing in the envelop was a letter written in Grandpa’s familiar scrawl handwriting. While the rest of the world embraced technology and typing in a word document, good ole grandpa always refused.
If you’re reading this, then that must mean I am dead. First, I want to say that I am sorry and I love you. I hope you can keep that in mind when you read what I am about to tell you. I have made a series of decisions in my life that I have come to deeply regret as I grew older. At the time, it seemed like the smart decision, but now I am not so sure-
There was a quiet knock on the door that pulled me out of my concentration. I blinked a few more times. Fear and anxiety gripping my entire body. What was going on? What secrets did he have that were so bad? “Luca, dear? You alright in there?” it was Grandma. I took a deep breath before responding, my throat suddenly feeling dry and constricted.
“I’m fine, grandma. Just had to make a quick phone call.” I waited until I heard her soft footsteps shuffling away from the door. Whatever was in this letter I needed to read it fast before someone else came and interrupted me.
Second, no matter what they told you, I did not die of natural causes. If I am dead, it’s because your grandmother has finally succeeded in killing me. Luca I am so sorry, but you need to run. Pack up your things and get as far away from your Grandmother as possible. Take your mother with you. I am no longer able to protect the two of you.
Your grandmother is a murderer. I was sorting through her belongings a few months ago and I spotted a box that I had never seen before. Inside this box was a pile of old ID cards and passports. All with your grandmother’s face on them. All of the names were connected to police investigations of missing people and murder victims. I thought it was some kind of joke, but you know there has always been something a bit off about your grandmother. In our entire 52 years of marriage together, I had only seen her smile once. When we found your uncle dead in our basement.
We never told you, but your mom had a twin brother. They were inseparable up until they were 19 when he died in what we thought was a freak accident. We found him in the basement, covered in blood. I am almost certain your grandmother had something to do with it. He had been trying to get me alone to tell me something, but I was too preoccupied with other things to make time for him. He left a flash drive in one of my shoes in the closet. By the time I had found it, it was too late. I don’t know how he found out, but he knew and your grandmother got rid of him, her own son, for it.
I confronted your grandmother about what I had found and I had never seen someone look so evil. It was like she had turned into some type of demon from those movies you watch all the time. Your mother has always blamed your grandmother for her brother’s death which is why they are always so strained. I don’t know if she knows just how responsible she is, but either way none of you are safe. I should have turned her in a long time ago when I thought she was responsible for Carter’s death, but I couldn’t. She’s my wife. I love her. That love is what got me and your brother killed. Do not let her age fool you, she is a killer and once she has her mind set on it, you will die. Take what I have given you and turn it in to the police. Do what your uncle and I couldn’t.
I sat where I was, confused. Was grandpa losing his mind before he died? No one had mentioned dementia. He seemed coherent enough last time we spoke, although he seemed a little more tired than usual. My head was hurting and my vision blurred a little. I stood up, but felt dizzy and nauseous so I sat back down on the bed. I couldn’t get my thoughts together.
Was any of this true? I had to know.
Luckily, there was a desktop with me in the guest bedroom. Grandma kept it in here because she swore the radiation from the computer would give us all cancer. I powered on the machine and took a deep breath as I waited. When the desktop flashed on, I plugged in the flash drive and opened it up.
My blood ran cold.
Pictures of my grandmother’s face through different stages of life on countless IDs and Passports. Different hair colors, and different clothing styles.
There had to be at least 15 different names here. There were copies of case files and police investigative reports from investigations that had gone cold. I needed to get out of here. I needed to think. I tried to stand up but my legs wouldn’t work. It felt almost as if someone was sitting on my chest. Was this a panic attack? My breath was shallow. Something was wrong.
“Someone help.” I called weakly. The door to the guest bedroom opened and my mother peaked her head in. At the sight of me in a pile on the floor, she pushed the door open wider and rushed to my side. “Luca! Are you okay? What’s wrong? What’s happening?” I couldn’t speak.
Both Sheila and my grandmother came into the room to see me crumpled on the floor. Their voices sounded like I was underwater. What was happening to me? I needed to get up. I needed to get out of here. I had to run. I needed to get my mother somewhere safe. I needed to get Sheila out of here. Now is not the time for a panic attack. Through blurry vision I saw grandma glance up at the computer screen, her expression hardened. When she looked back at me, the realization of what I now knew was all over her face.
As Sheila reached grabbed her phone to call 911, my mother stroked my forehead, trying to keep me calm. Behind them, grandma moved quietly over to the computer and closed out the screen I had been looking at and slipped the flash drive into her bra. Neither Sheila nor my mother noticed. I tried to speak. “Panic…attack…” I struggled to get the words out. At the sound of my voice they stopped and looked at me. It was my grandmother who responded.
“This isn’t a panic attack, Luca.” She said matter-of-factly. My brain was slow to process her words. This wasn’t a panic attack, but how did she know this for sure?
The realization made it even harder to breathe. I had drunk that entire glass of juice. Even though it had a slight bitter taste. I had been poisoned by someone I thought was my family. By someone I trusted. Why was this happening? Why did she want me dead? I looked up at the three of them, the last bits of my vision swimming and blurring. Sheila and my mother watched me, both frantic and worried. There was a hint of something in my mother’s eye. Was it understanding? Resolve? I couldn’t be sure. My brain was getting foggier by the second, but the one thing I could focus on, as it felt like the life was draining from my body and everything was turning black, was my grandmother’s face over my mom’s shoulder as she watched me take what I knew would be my last breath.
She was smiling.