And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway. Javelinas darted out from behind cactuses and the heat beat down so hard I could feel my skin melting. The sun was setting over a cliff to the West and the moon was rising in the East, high above a shimmering landscape that resembled the surface of Mars. My grandpa was my grandpa, but there was something different about him. A hollowness in his cheeks, a latent youthfulness in his eyes, a limp in his gait that wasn’t there before. He was a tall slender man, once a rider of horses, a tuft of wild white hair sticking up from his head like goat’s fur. I didn’t think I was ever going to see him again, so to have him before me was a strange gift. Even if he wasn’t fully himself and I wasn’t, either.
The sun was setting. It was scorching. We should’ve been sweating, but instead we were levitating and smiling so wide our cheeks hurt. Or would’ve hurt, if we could’ve felt them. Time was short and the moon was rising and there was a pressing matter to address. The hot sand stretched in both directions for miles. It was a wild stifling expanse tying me up like a hog. Gramps stared at me with glimmering eyes, waiting for me to speak, to say something we both knew I had to say but neither could get at.
We waited in silence. A black desert bird landed on my shoulder. I didn’t shoo it away, which I took as further evidence that I was not myself, and very much in a strange land. I let the ugly creature perch there, noting the worms and mites crawling through its feathers. The desert grew radiant as the sun continued downward and the pale moon moved upward.
My grandpa looked at the stars and tapped his wrist. The blackbird was reflected in his watery irises and I knew I had to say something before Gramps was gone forever. I moved my lips, but the words were not my own and they did not come from my throat. They were spilling out of the bird, a situation I found repugnant but could not change. I kept talking through the bird, like he was the puppet and I was the master, though in reality, the opposite was true. The bird was leading.
“Where did you go?” the bird asked Gramps. “You were here and then you were gone. I want to know where you went.”
“The first assumption you’re making is that I was anywhere to begin with,” Gramps said.
“Surely we were somewhere,” I said. “I mean, you were there in front of me. I was there in front of you. We saw each other, as much as one person can see another.”
Gramps laughed. He laughed for a long time. He laughed so hard I thought his frail ribs would snap like chicken bones. He collapsed to his knees, thin skin on hot sand, and coughed and laughed until he was wheezing. He took deep, deliberate breaths then rose to his feet, dusting off the sand. The sun was still hot as hell even though it was almost set.
“We are in front of each other while we dream, aren’t we?” he asked. “We see and hear and do things and it feels as real as smooth pebbles under our feet. We dream of a cold lake and jump in. We feel the water on our skin and know those sensations are real. But in the yellow glow of morning, we are proven wrong. Over and over again, we are proven wrong.”
As Gramps spoke these words, I felt a trembling in my cells, like they were attempting to wrestle free. They boiled and writhed then burst from my stomach, scattering forth in a great rainbow, flowing river-like into Gramps’ chest. Sand rose and whirled in mini-tornadoes, obscuring the moon and the sun and the cliffs. My consciousness was slowly changing, like wood becoming sawdust through the gnawing of mites. My grandpa was not so much disappearing as he was passively accepting the multicolor flow of cells, seeming less and less like a separate entity and more like part of me. The sand whirled and the great rainbow flowed for what felt like an eternity. In some distant galaxy, a comet struck an uninhabited planet.
Then it was over. No more blackbird. No more me. I stood where Gramps once stood, inspecting my wrinkly arms and feeling the great sag of time on my body. The whirlwinds died down and the sun and moon reappeared. It didn’t seem real, but I knew it must be. I felt it down in my gut and that had to count for something.
There was a young man where my old self had been. He looked like me. After studying him for some time – his smooth skin, his full head of brown hair, his soul not yet defeated – I knew at once he must be my grandson. Or at least a version of my grandson, a grandson who in the future may exist, or perhaps existed centuries ago. He was staring at me like I was a hallucination conjured up by the desert heat. A javelina sniffed his leg then ran off across the hot sand toward the horizon. My grandson and I stared at each other. We blinked. I looked down and shuffled my feet. Then my grandson lurched toward me and wrapped my brittle body in a big hug, the kind of hug that one can only give to an elderly relative. “Gramps,” he muttered. And upon uttering these words, my soul to rose from my body and moved into the atmosphere, above the desert, like a silver UFO. There was a sense of eternal release.
Before the embrace, I’d been bound to a realm I never truly understood. A painful and hectic realm that crushed bones and hammered spirits until movement felt like such a chore that the living stopped moving out of necessity. But now, floating above it all, there was no heaviness, only the bubbling joy of evaporation. I felt light and proud, fully myself. When I gazed downward, I saw two skeletons, still locked in an embrace. Out in some distant corner of the galaxy, another boring comet smashed into another boring planet. And below me, on the horizon to the West, a boy was walking into the sinking sun, a familiar boy with a limp and a tuft of wild brown hair, carrying all the familiar burdens one must carry until the day he is set free.
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
The best music and literature consumed by Ourland’s editor over the past year.
You take a couple sips of the hot, earthy liquid, and off goes your mind. Now you’re floating. Near the ceiling, mingling with the smoky coffee bean scent. You’re settling into your body again.