Illustrated by Alankrita Jain
Grandfather’s will was in a tinderbox. He had put it in there right after smoking his last cigar. His wish was for me to read it upon his passing. That was a week ago. The funeral had come and gone, long distant relatives and friends had returned to their regular lives and the business of dying was left to me. Not my father or my grandmother, who were both still alive.
So in a small room, we were gathered at a medium-sized table with the box sitting right in front of me. I opened it up and the smell of tobacco was pungent and sweet. The family lawyer had told me to read the whole thing silently before reading off the allotments. I did as I was told. For fifteen minutes, the room was silent and the dead air was like a vacuum transforming us into motionless objects floating in space. Finally, I finished and let out a sigh. The still of silence broke like a rush of gravity, releasing everyone in the room to move and breathe and talk.
“So,” my father said, “what does it say?”
“You get grandpa’s savings, dad,” I said. “Grandma, you get the house.”
My sister and my aunt were waiting eagerly. “Well?” they both said in unison.
“Jenna, you get grandpa’s Chevelle and aunt Jane, you get grandpa’s findings that he kept for himself.”
They were both ecstatic. They all were ecstatic, but possessions were not why they were here. There was something else, something burning inside them. A question they’d wanted to know the answer to their whole lives.
Father spoke. “What else did it say?”
Without even thinking, I asked, “Aren’t you guys happy?” As I said it, I knew it would only add to the anticipation.
“Are you kidding me?” my aunt said. “We’ve been wanting to know what he’s been keeping to himself for 25 years now. Your Grandmother has a right to know.”
“Okay,” I said. “He specifically says that there was no alien ship.” Confusion immediately set in. Why had Grandpa changed from this convivial, festive father and husband to an introverted, reticent hermit who stayed in his room and wrote in his journals? There was a stunned silence that lingered in the room. Sitting there, no one knew what questions to ask or who to ask if there were any.
Finally, Jenna said to me, “So what did you get?”
“Come on! Really.” Jenna dipped her head. She was in no mood for my humor. Neither were the rest of them.
“He left me his journals,” I said.
And that was it. The anti-climactic meeting left everyone discombobulated, disappointed and empty—so much at a loss for words that no one even said goodbye. They just got into their cars and left.
As I sat in my car, the tobacco scent spreading with every passing moment, I could only imagine what was going on in their heads. The thought of all these years of unjustifiably putting up with grandfather’s taciturn behavior must’ve been maddening. For them to think that he discovered an alien spacecraft and that something about that spacecraft changed him would’ve justified his aloofness. Yet, for all of the justification to be erased left them feeling robbed, cheated, and neglected. For me, I could see why grandpa chose me to read the will. Reason or not, it didn’t change my love for him. I knew he was still grandpa to some capacity. If he truly didn’t care, he would’ve got up and left.
In any case, all I could think about was the tinderbox, which was sitting on the dashboard. Grandpa wrote in his will to wait until I was alone. I had been sitting there for a good ten minutes. The sun was starting to set and the birds that were feeding on seeds in the weeded parking lot had just cast off towards the west. There was absolutely no one else around. Not a car on the adjacent streets and not another building within a couple blocks. It was kind of eerie, actually. Grandpa said to open the tinderbox and roll the will into a scroll. He said there would be a thin circular die-cut looking slot in the center, partially covered by the velvet that lined the box. I spread out the lining and saw the thin circular slit. He said to insert the right side of the rolled up will into the slot. When I did, the tinderbox split open and revealed a hidden compartment underneath the main area. What I saw next made my body rigid and the hair on the back of my neck stand. My eyes focused in on the image in the hidden compartment. It was a photograph of my grandfather but he looked in utero. He was naked and fetal positioned, as if sitting in an invisible chair. He was in what looked like a room filled with water. A tube ran from his nose, a separate tube from his mouth, both in a direction out of focus from the camera. Across from him was a sea creature-looking thing that was half squid and half sea horse like. It too was sitting. It looked like they were conversing. It took a while for me to realize that they must’ve been communicating with each other. My grandfather went on his trips alone, yet someone or something must have taken this photo of them.
It was close to dark when I finally peeled my eyes from the photo and searched the rest of the box. In it was a Swedish key and a note that warned me to never tell another soul and that the reasons were all written in his journals which were locked away in a safety deposit box. I took the key and fastened it to my key ring along with my car and house keys. I turned the ignition and pulled into the street. I had to find my way to Stockholm.