“Grandpa, don’t fall asleep!”
The boy leaned over the old man’s bed, eyes wide with worry. Grandpa’s laugh at this turned into a cough that didn’t sound good, but at least pumped a little more spirit in his dying body.
“I’m not a goner yet, sonny boy!”
This trademark phrase seemed to ease the boy’s nerves, and he sat back down. The wariness was still there, though. It could be seen in the way his eyes didn’t seem to blink anymore. In the way his body trembled with a scared excitement. And of course in the moistness of the hand lying in his grandfather’s left palm. Were he a little older, the stress might have been too much for the young child’s heart, but as it stood, grandpa would go first. It was the right way. The man would be missed severely by the kid, but that heartache would surely be nothing compared to losing a child.
“Tell me one of your stories, grandpa!”
“Tell me one of your stories…?”
“Please!” the code word sounded immediately.
“Alright then, but I sense our time is short. My appointment should be here soon.”
The old man rummaged around a bit in the endless depths of his memory. He liked to think of it as a vast library, divided up in sections with labels such as ‘Middle-Age History’, ‘Advanced Mathematics’ and ‘Family’. This time he went to the one labeled ‘Own Works’.
“Here we go,” he said. “Listen carefully and learn.” As always, the emphasis was placed heavily on ‘learn’. He continued. “This telling is about a man with a mind brighter and more curious than any you might have seen before. It was his life’s goal to learn and learn…and then learn some more. People marveled at the knowledge contained in this one person, yet for him it was never enough. He hungered for knowledge, was greedy for it. So night after night he prayed for the one thing he truly wanted: to possess all knowledge in the world. Were the devil to appear before him and offer it in exchange for his mortal soul, he would accept it in a heartbeat, no questions asked. The devil didn’t appear though. In his stead came a…”
A brisk knock on the wooden frame of the bedroom door interrupted him, and both generations of men looked up at the dark figure in the doorway. His face was thin and had an unpleasant, skull-like quality that was enhanced by the little toothless smile he mustered. His scrawny body was dressed in a grim, oversized black suit and his bone-like fingers grasped a little brown suitcase that seemed to be making soft whirring sounds. As if that wasn’t enough, his sudden presence sucked out the warmth that had been present between grandfather and grandson.
The screechy voice that came out of his mouth added a faint stink to the room that the old man only recognized as the stench of death. The surprised expression on his grandson’s face told him the kid had — luckily — never smelled it before.
“Good evening,” the suited man said, once again attempting his sinister laugh.
“You’re early,” grandpa replied without a smile.
“Yes, well, the best business is done early, or so they say, is it not?”
“I don’t believe so.”
The last phrase apparently went unnoticed, as the man strolled into the room and once more came to a halt at the other side of the bed.
“Mind if I make the preparations, sir?” he said, managing to turn ‘sir’ into nothing short of a sneer.
“If you must.”
The suitcase clicked open, its contents revealed. The boy stood up, so that he could see. It was a complicated looking device that bore no resemblance to anything he had ever seen before. All that was identifiable was a little dispenser bowl in the lower right corner. Whatever it was, it produced something. And by the looks of it, he would soon find out what it was.
The sinister man produced a couple of electrodes and attached them to grandpa’s head, then connected the end pieces to the device and flipped a switch.
“What are you doing?” the boy demanded.
The man only stared down at the boy, then shifted his glare to grandpa. It was an expectant one. Grandpa noticed and once more addressed his grandson.
“I guess this is goodbye,” he said softly.
“What is he doing, grandpa? What are you doing?” the boy’s voice now slightly panicky.
“Something that will pay for your round trip to college. That is all you need to know.”
“No buts, boy. No buts. You go now, and grow up to become the kind of man I would be proud of.”
Tears formed in both their eyes. The boy burst forth to embrace his grandfather one last time.
“I’ll miss your stories! I’ll miss you!”
Grandpa smiled. “An old man like me? No, you’re much too young to waste your precious time on something like that. Spend it on exploring, on learning!”
“You know I won’t…”
At hearing that, grandpa once more laughed. It was a laugh mixed with the bitter tears of goodbye.
The boy was asked to — patiently — wait outside. Anyone experienced with children would have known better than to include such a word in a phrase like that, especially when it concerns a child who feels particularly protective about his grandfather. So seconds later the door opened a little bit and the face of a little boy’s sad, wet face appeared in the creak. The device in the suitcase emitted loud noises now, but grandpa merely looked like he was sleeping. The suited man almost looked like a priest, with his hands folded over his waist and his head bowed. This scene remained for almost a minute, when the loud whirring sounds suddenly ceased. It was the moment the boy had been waiting for. He dashed inside, unaware of everything except for the little dispenser bin of the device. His hand swiftly swiped the small item that had just dropped down and, before the suited man could even unfold his hands, the boy had left the room and was taking the staircase three steps at a time.
In the front yard, which still bathed in the sunlight of a nice summer’s day, he dared take a short break to examine the thing he had just taken. It was a pill, bright blue in color and emitting something of a glow. It felt…intelligent. As if it injected some of its intelligence in his mind, the boy suddenly had the insight that the story his grandpa had been telling him was not just a story. In his hands he held the sort of thing the protagonist of the story had been looking for, a means to gain instant knowledge. Everything his grandpa had ever learned — and it was immeasurable in his eyes — was contained in this little pill, his to take. He would never again have to go to school, he could skip university. The thought of this was so tempting that he would have swallowed the pill right there on the spot, had it not been for the voice speaking up behind him.
“Your grandfather asked me to tell you one last thing.”
He turned on the spot and saw the suited man standing on the porch. Nothing in his appearance seemed hostile, and the streak of sunlight that fell upon his face softened his features quite a bit. When he spoke again, strangely his voice also seemed affected by the sun.
“Finish the story yourself.”
The man’s expression was a little puzzled, but the boy understood. He understood that the figure who appeared in front of the story’s main character was this man, this extractor of knowledge, come to offer him the little pill he held in his hands. He understood that, in his eagerness for knowledge, the character had swallowed the pill and had known all. So he had also known that by gaining it, he had nothing left to learn. His life was rendered without purpose. He would never more taste the joy of taking in new facts. By having his greatest wish granted, he had lost the pleasure of achieving it.
Life is a continuous lesson. You fall down, you learn how to get back up. The boy understood, as his grandpa had. His fingers loosened and the pill dropped to the ground. Then he turned to run, never looking back at the scrawny salesman in the oversized suit.